Tackling air pollution an essential part of the COVID-19 green recovery

by BreatheLife - 8 June, 2020
On World Environment Day a global thematic panel hosted by Colombia discussed a greener, healthier “new normal”

On World Environment Day, as a virtual celebrations kicked off in host country Colombia amid the cautious lifting of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in countries around the world, it was clear that many eyes were on visions of a green recovery.

“We need to take advantage of what we have experienced with the pandemic. It allows us to evaluate what has been useful to improve air quality and see which measures – home offices, different distribution of work schedules and active transportation – can be included as a part of a transition in this new normality,” said Pan American Health Organization’s Colombia representative, Gina Tambini.

Tambini was speaking on one of a series of thematic panels covering biodiversity (this year’s overarching theme), climate change, cities and environment, air quality and health and the circular economy, and were part of Colombia’s host country programme to mark the day.

The panel was hosted by Daniel Quintero Calle, Mayor of Medellín, a BreatheLife city of 4 million inhabitants nestled in the Aburrá Valley of Colombia that is tackling classic urban environmental challenges like air pollution through, among other things, boosting the reach and capacity of its public transport system, infrastructure for cyclists and a planned mass introduction of electric bicycles in the hilly city.

“Air quality kills more people than the coronavirus, but it hasn’t received the same reaction,” Quintero Calle said, kicking off the discussion by highlighting the 4.2 million people worldwide who die each year from illnesses brought on by exposure to outdoor air pollution.

The discussion echoed a call from thousands of healthcare professionals around the world and WHO’s Manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19, which made clear that investing in a green recovery that continued to protect human health necessarily included putting myriad and interlinked environmental and health challenges at its core — and that this could start with a glimpse of what was possible.

At the 2020 World Health Assembly in May, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told world leaders, “the ‘lockdown’ measures that have been necessary to control the spread of COVID-19 have slowed economic activity, and disrupted lives – but have also given some glimpses of a possible brighter future. In some places, pollution levels have dropped to such an extent that people have breathed clean air, or have seen blue skies and clear waters, or have been able to walk and cycle safely with their children – for the first times in their lives.”

Like Dr Tedros, Tambini believed the pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink and reflect on the response against air pollution and other environmental risks to health.

“Cities have had better air quality because of the isolation measures that we have had to institute. But true benefits for health can only happen with a steady improvement and a continuous air quality – not only with temporary measures,” she said.

“We obviously can’t live in an eternal pandemic, nor do we want to live in social isolation; and for that reason, this poses an opportunity to think about how we can reduce the emissions in a quicker way,” said Minister of Environment of Peru, Fabiola Muñoz.

Peruvian capital Lima is one of several major cities around the world — among them Colombian capital Bogotá, several European cities and London — to accelerate plans to nudge commuters in the direction of cycling and walking rather than driving as economies restart, as ways to head off overcrowding in public transport and allow for safe social distancing while reaping the co-benefits of lower pollution and more physical activity.

Until recently, other cities in Peru were not always so enthused about bikeways.

“One of the first things that has been done has been to significantly increase the number of bikeways in the city — not only in Lima, but in all of the principle cities of the country. For a very long time we have tried to put in bikeways, but the speed in which the Mayors were convinced to do it was still too slow,” Minister Muñoz said.

Today, she said, there was no longer a question of whether bikeways were important, particularly when they were integrated with bus stops to support and complement the public transport system.

In Lima, where 68 per cent of air pollutant emissions come from transport, this, and the promotion of electric mobility, were critical to the longer view of a green recovery.

“The coronavirus crisis has allowed us to be conscious of the tremendous impact that transportation activity has (but also other urban activities) on air pollution and health,” said Senior Policy Director of the Global Clean Air Initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund, Sergio Sánchez.

“The second lesson is that this improvement in the air quality in some cities allowed us to save lives. It doesn’t mean that the pandemic is good for the health, but… having better air quality allows us to reveal the tremendous hidden costs that the way cities work in the previous normality had on us,” he said.

Globally, those costs are staggering — a death toll of 7 million annually from diseases caused by air pollution alone, which also racks up a trillion-dollar bill in illness, lost productivity and lost agricultural output.

“There are many world and local leaders, like in Medellin and in Peru, that I think are going to take this opportunity, as we have heard, to start implementing measures that can replace highly polluting practices for something healthier. But the green economy involves acting across different areas,” Head, Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat, Helena Molin Valdés told the panel.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition works with governments and international organizations to reduce their emissions of reduce short-lived climate pollutants, focusing on very specific topics in solid waste management, oil and gas, cleaner cooking, “so that, little by little, we reduce the pollutants that cause health problems and ecosystem impacts that also cause climate change impacts, and increase local, regional and global temperatures,” she said.

“There are opportunities… in this pandemic context, but we have to be more creative and innovative than ever. Where the technology and the knowledge already exist, what we need is, like we said at COP25 (the UN Climate Change Conference) last year, to enlarge our ambition, increase our ambition, but also our sense of urgency,” said Minister Muñoz.

Green recovery will also likely look different depending on location.

“You can’t come with solutions and make a copy-paste; it always needs to be a copy-adapt to each city context or to every political environment and also, invest a lot in the new systems capacitation,” said Director of Andean Regional Hub Cooperation, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Martin Jaggi.

Both Molin Valdés and Jaggi stressed that multilateralism was more important than ever to a sustainable green, healthy recovery — a view illustrated by Medellín’s experience of high pollution levels from fires in the Amazon, in Orinoco, while under COVID-19 lockdown.

“In the short term, it has been positive in some cities, as you mentioned, but in other countries, because forest fires have increased, the air situation has also been worse, so international cooperation is still going to be very important, maybe even more important in the future,” said Jaggi.

“I think that, from what we have seen now with the crisis we are facing, while there is relevance in local and national governments, this doesn’t replace the need for global interconnectivity. There’s no global agreement on the air, no global air agency like there is for health, but that doesn’t mean that this is not a problem that unites us, and that also connects us with sustainable development in general – because air, water or soil pollution are products of our way of production, the way we produce energy and live,” Molin Valdés said.

“There’s no simple answer… but in my point of view, global interconnectivity must be strengthened so we can face our present problems, the need to save biodiversity, the climate from the pollution, otherwise we don’t have much of a future,” she said.

Earlier in the week, an open letter from 350 organisations representing over 40 million health professionals and over 4,500 individual health professionals from 90 different countries raised the compromises to health brought on by air pollution and outlined a vision of the future that a healthy, green recovery could bring.

It read:

“Before COVID-19, air pollution – primarily from traffic, inefficient residential energy use for cooking and heating, coal-fired power plants, the burning of solid waste, and agriculture practices – was already weakening our bodies.

“A truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation, potentially unleashing new health threats upon vulnerable populations.

“In a healthy economy and civil society the most vulnerable among us are looked after. Workers have access to well-paying jobs that do not exacerbate pollution or nature degradation; cities prioritize pedestrians, cyclists and public transport, and our rivers and skies are protected and clean. Nature is thriving, our bodies are more resilient to infectious diseases, and nobody is pushed into poverty because of healthcare costs.”

This story first appeared on the BreatheLife Website here.

BreatheLife is a Climate and Clean Air Coalition initiative led by the World Health Organization, UN Environment Programme, and the World Bank.