Poor air quality and climate change are the two greatest threats to human health in the pan-European region

by CCAC secretariat - 9 June, 2016
GEO-6 Assessment for the Pan European Region released at Eighth Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in Batumi, Georgia

Poor air quality, climate change, unhealthy lifestyles and the disconnection between people and the environment are increasingly affecting human health in the region, finds the latest Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) assessment for the pan-European region, prepared by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Economic Commission for Europe with support from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Air pollution is now the greatest health risk in the region, with more than 95% of the EU urban population exposed to levels above World Health Organization guidelines, for example. Over 500,000 premature deaths in the region were attributable to outdoor air quality and 100,000 to indoor air quality in 2012.

In a speech at the opening of the Eighth Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in Batumi, Georgia, UNEP's Deputy Executive Director, Ibrahim Thiaw, said that despite improvements in air quality in many parts of Europe, air pollution has emerged as the number one health risk to the region's population.

"If air pollution were human then it would be the deadliest mass murderer in history, as it claims 7 million lives every year," Mr Thiaw said.  "Slowly and silently, this pollution is turning the air we breathe into a deadly cocktail of toxins. These poisons can penetrate deep inside our bodies, causing heart attacks, lung infections and cancers. We can even see this silent killer from space in the thick clouds of toxic filth that shrouds so many of the world's cities."

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Climate change is one of the largest threats to human and ecosystem health and to achieving sustainable development in the pan-European region. It is also an accelerator for most other environmental risks. Impacts of climate change affect health through floods, heat waves, droughts, reduced agricultural productivity, exacerbated air pollution and allergies and vector, food and water-borne diseases.

“The GEO-6 assessment for the pan-European region – the first of its kind – highlights how the transition to an inclusive green economy in the region must build on resilient ecosystems, sound management of chemicals and clean production systems, and on healthy consumption choices,” said Jan Dusik, Head of UNEP’s Regional Office for Europe. “Greater cooperation and a more integrated approach are needed to tackle these transboundary challenges, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals," he underlined.

The GEO-6 report for the Pan European region is the latest and last in a series of regional assessments that find that the world shares a host of common environmental threats that are rapidly intensifying in many parts of the world. Five other reports covering North America, Asia and the Pacific, West Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa were released ahead of the second United Nations Environment Assembly last month.

In almost every region, population growth, rapid urbanization, rising levels of consumption, desertification, land degradation and climate change are increasing pressure on the environment. These worrying trends are leading to air pollution, water scarcity and is also making it increasingly hard for the world to feed itself, warn the reports, which involved 1,203 scientists, hundreds of scientific institutions and more than 160 governments.

Air pollution trends from other GEO-6 regions

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Air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, poses a major problem for the continent, both for the environment and human health. About 90 per cent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are exposed to indoor air pollution, impacting economies and livelihoods while contributing to increased emissions of greenhouse gases.

An estimated 600,000 deaths per year can be attributed to indoor air pollution in Africa.

Urbanization, industrialization and motorization are driving an increase in outdoor air pollution on the continent. Most people in sub-Saharan Africa still rely on solid fuels for cooking, heating and lighting due to unpredictable income streams, which makes electricity unaffordable for large parts of the population.  

Responses include reducing the dependence on solid fuels for cooking and heating through affordable energy by utilizing Africa's vast renewable energy resources, particularly solar, wind and hydropower. Investing in transport solutions that reduce the need for travel, such as sustainable mass transport systems. Increased monitoring of indoor and outdoor air quality.

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Asia and the Pacific

Air quality degradation and climate change driven by population and economic growth, transport, energy, agricultural demand and household consumption, are key issues in Asia Pacific.

The impact of air pollution on human health is of great significance in Asia and the Pacific resulting in heart and chronic respiratory illnesses, cancer, increased morbidity, and premature deaths. In addition, indoor air pollution has been found to have gendered impacts leading to high lung cancer rates for women. Climate change and air pollution cause glacier retreat, contribute to ocean acidification, and increase the risk of vector-borne diseases throughout the region.

Air pollution has two major sources: in households from the burning of coal and biomass for cooking and heating, and in the ambient environment from fossil fuel combustion, mostly for transport and electricity generation.

There has been some reduction in emissions of Sulphur dioxide and Nitrogen oxides, but air pollution and GHG emissions are high and continue to increase.

World Health Organization (WHO) found that 88 per cent of premature deaths in the region are disproportionally due to the burden of outdoor air pollution.

Short-lived climate pollutants (SLPCs) contribute to 102 deaths per 100,000 people in Western Pacific and 51 in Southeast Asia.

Almost 1.9 billion people still use biomass for cooking, producing high amounts of air pollution. More than 1 million premature deaths annually in India and China can be attributed to exposure to household air pollution.


Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)

Greenhouse gas emissions are growing in LAC as a result of urbanization, economic growth, energy consumption, land use changes and other factors. These changes result in degradation of air quality, both indoors and outdoors. Most of the cities in the region for which data are available have concentrations of particulate matter (PM) above World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. LAC region has, however, made progress on the reduction of ozone-depleting substances and the elimination of lead in gasoline.

Urban growth is a major pressure, due mainly to increased energy consumption and transport. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increased by 14.18 per cent between 2006 and 2011. The transportation sector represents 35 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 506.4 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

Agriculture also has a strong effect on emissions of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide emissions from soils, from leaching and runoff, direct emissions, and animal manure, increased by about 29 per cent between 2000 and 2010. The abundance of beef and dairy cattle in the region leads to methane emissions, which grew by 19 per cent between 2000 and 2010.

In LAC, an estimated 100 million people live in areas susceptible to air pollution, mostly in highly populated areas of cities. In 2012, a total of 138,000 deaths in the Americas (low and middle income) were attributed to ambient air pollution and household air pollution.

LAC nations have adopted the Regional Plan of Action on Atmospheric Pollution. The plan, which is the first of its kind in the world, recognizes the importance of the issue of air quality and encourages governments to identify the economic resources needed for the sustainability of the air quality monitoring networks.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is working with governments in the region to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon and methane.

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North America

Regional, national, and local efforts to improve air quality are having substantial, measurable, and important public health benefits. Robust regulatory systems in Canada and the US have been successful in significantly reducing air pollution. Despite significant progress, the improvements in air quality are not evenly distributed, with approximately 140 million people exposed to pollution above regulatory thresholds, exceeding levels considered harmful to public health. Providing information to the public about air pollutant emissions, concentrations, and health implications has helped individuals mitigate their own exposure and create public demand for air pollution control.

Anthropogenic air pollution emissions are driven by population, economic activity, energy consumption and technology. Between 1970 and 2013, US GDP increased by 234 per cent, vehicle miles travelled by 168 per cent, population by 54 per cent and energy consumption by 44 per cent.

However, through implementation of pollution controls and improved efficiency measures, both Canada and the US have seen a decoupling of gross domestic product (GDP) and other economic and behavioral drivers from emissions. Total emissions of the six main air pollutants – Sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and lead – fell by 68 per cent. However, between 1970 and 2012, CO2 emissions increased by 24 per cent.

The health benefits of action on air quality have estimated value in the order of $2 trillion. In 2011, the US Environment Protection Agency estimated that by 2020 air pollution controls resulting from the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments would prevent more than 230,000 early deaths per year.

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West Asia

The West Asia region has natural sources of air pollution, such as dust storms, and man-made sources, such as power and water production, industry, transportation and construction. The level of air pollutants in West Asia has increased progressively over the past two decades.

Although most West Asian countries have ambient air quality and air pollutant emission standards, particulate matter concentrations in the atmosphere still exceed legal standards and the more stringent WHO guidelines for protecting human health and ecosystems. Efforts are in place to improve air quality monitoring and reporting capabilities.

Efforts have been made by West Asian countries to reduce the level of air pollutants but further controls are required. Long-term monitoring of major and minor pollutants should be set up in all West Asian countries. Concurrently, cleaner fuels and the installation of pollution-reducing technologies should be introduced.