In a World Full of Dirty Air, Regional Agreements on Air Pollution Offer a Glimmer of Hope

by CCAC Secretariat - 6 September, 2023
West Asia is the latest regional coordination bloc to move towards joint air quality action.

Air pollution is everywhere, in cities and in the countryside, and it recognises no national boundaries. Today 99% of the world’s population breathes unclean air. Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million to 10 million people a year, taking 2.2 years off global average life expectancy.

Air pollutants can travel across borders and impact the air quality and ecosystems of neighbouring countries, not just where they originate. Air pollution doesn’t just jeopardize our health and well-being: it contributes massively to climate change, threatens food security, and makes city inhabitants unsafe. This challenge cannot be addressed through local action alone. Regional cooperation is required to sustainably combat the scourge of dirty air. 

About 50 years ago, North American and European countries began passing national legislation to deal with increasingly dirty air and its effects. In 1979, the first-ever international agreement was passed in Europe to deal with transboundary air pollution. For more than 20 years, this was the only such agreement that existed.

But over the last few decades, countries all over the world have begun joining together to foster cooperation and mitigate the dangerous effects of transboundary air pollution. From Southeast Asia to the African continent and even the Arctic, more and more nations are joining together to address this shared emergency — so that now today 95% of the Earth’s population is covered by air pollution-specific regional agreements, sparking hope for action to clean the air we all breathe. 

The UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution has served as a groundbreaking framework since its inception. This convention, which today comprises 51 Parties, marked the first international legally binding agreement aimed at curbing transboundary air pollution. Protocols under the convention have successfully reduced emissions of specific pollutants; for instance, sulphur dioxide emissions in Europe have plummeted by over 90% since the early 1990s. The Convention has substantially contributed to the development of international environmental law and has created the essential framework for controlling and reducing the damage to human health and the environment caused by transboundary air pollution. 

“The UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution has demonstrated that we can achieve remarkable results, provided we work together: The reductions in emissions that have been achieved under the Convention have prevented 600,000 premature deaths annually and led to 1 additional year of life expectancy in Europe. Let’s redouble our efforts for cleaner air in Europe and around the world!”, said Tatiana Molcean, Executive Secretary of UNECE. 

The European Union itself has demonstrated a commitment to addressing air pollution through various legislative measures. The EU Air Quality Directive, dating back to 1980, marked an early step in the bloc's efforts to regulate atmospheric emissions. With instruments like the National Emission Ceilings Directive, the EU enforces strict emission standards and caps, aiming to safeguard public health and the environment. The EU's multifaceted approach exemplifies the importance of comprehensive policies to tackle the complex issue of air pollution. 

In Asia, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution stands as a prime example of regional collaboration. Enacted in 2003 by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), this legally binding agreement seeks to combat land and forest fires that lead to transboundary haze. The pact focuses on monitoring, mitigation, response, research, and communication. Recognising that air pollution respects no borders, ASEAN member states have taken a united stance to protect both their citizens and their shared environment. 

The UN ESCAP Regional Action Programme on Air Pollution represents another significant stride in global efforts to curb transboundary air pollution. Spearheaded by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP), this program encompasses the Asia-Pacific region, a region grappling with rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. The program's aim is to facilitate cooperation among nations, enabling them to collectively address the critical issue of air pollution and its adverse impacts. 

“Nearly 90 per cent of the population of the Asia-Pacific region regularly breathes air considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be unsafe,” said Sangmin Nam, Director, Environment and Development Division. “Air pollution does not just affect one country. The Regional Action Programme on Air Pollution aims to build a region-wide partnership of countries and stakeholders to confront the region’s most serious environment and health challenges.” 

Meanwhile, in East Asia, the Acid Deposition Monitoring Network in East Asia (EANET) was established in 2001. This initiative, born out of intergovernmental cooperation, aims to understand and combat acid deposition. Over the years, EANET's scope has expanded to address wider air pollution issues, leading to the establishment of the EANET Project Fund. Through shared research and understanding, participating nations contribute to informed decision-making and cooperation in the region.

In South Asia, the Malé Declaration on Control and Prevention of Air Pollution and Its Likely Transboundary Effects for South Asia (Malé Declaration) emerged in 1998 as the first regional agreement on pollution in South Asia. This pioneering declaration has prompted collaborative efforts among countries like India, Pakistan, and Nepal to develop emission inventories, monitor air pollutants, and assess the impacts on various sectors. The declaration's revival in recent years underscores the region's commitment to addressing air pollution as a communal, regional problem. 

There’s movement in West Asia on this as well: West Asian countries met on the 3rd and 4th of September 2023 and recommended the establishment of a Regional Air Quality Network for West Asia. A regional network would foster a coordinated approach for air quality management in West Asia. 

“In addition to the anthropogenic sources, natural dust is a major source of air pollution in West Asia,” said Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region (EMR). “As stated in the EMR Vision ‘Health for all by all 2023,’ regional cooperation will enhance coordinated approach for addressing this unique challenge faced by the region.” 

The Intergovernmental Network on Atmospheric Pollution for Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) has further enriched the global response to transboundary air pollution. This initiative, reforged with the adoption of a new Regional Air Quality Action Plan for the LAC region (2022-2025), demonstrates a concerted commitment to addressing air quality challenges in the region, reflecting the urgency of confronting air pollution and underscoring that regional cooperation is pivotal to effective solutions. 

In Africa, regional agreements have also taken shape. The Lusaka Agreement, established in 2008 by 14 Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states, emphasises the links between air pollution and health, crops, and ecosystems. This agreement aims to harmonise national legislation, air quality standards, and monitoring practices to develop a multilateral approach to air pollution management.

Eastern Africa witnessed the formalisation of the Nairobi Agreement in 2008, focusing on actionable targets to combat air pollution in various sectors. This initiative seeks to foster regional cooperation in areas such as transport, energy, and waste management, while also prioritising public participation and research. West and Central Africa joined the fight against air pollution through the Abidjan Agreement in 2009. This comprehensive framework targets key sources of pollution, including transport, household pollution, waste, and more. Public participation, capacity building, and research development remain at the core of the agreement's objectives. 

Though there is not yet a continent-wide movement to encourage collaborative air pollution action, one could be on the horizon. At the 17th Session of the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN) in 2019, environment ministers from African countries resolved to support the mitigation of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) and endorsed the Africa Integrated Assessment of Air Pollution and Climate Change, which recommends the implementation of a continent-wide Clean Air Plan. 

Beyond continental collaborations, specific regions like the Arctic Council have come together to address pollution concerns. With the 2017 Fairbanks Declaration, Arctic states committed to reducing black carbon emissions, recognising the significant impact of pollutants on Arctic ecosystems and global climate change. 

Air pollution continues to be disastrous for human and planetary health. As the world grapples with the urgent need to combat transboundary air pollution, these agreements and initiatives offer a glimmer of hope. From Southeast Asia to the Arctic, nations are continually acknowledging the interconnectedness of our planet and uniting in their efforts to secure cleaner, healthier air for generations to come. These collaborations underscore the collective responsibility to safeguard the air we all share, transcending borders and divisions for the sake of a cleaner future — one where we come #TogetherForCleanAir. 

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) is the only international initiative working to reduce powerful but short-lived climate pollutants that drive both climate change and air pollution. It is convened by the United Nations Environment Programme and is a partnership of 80 countries and over 80 non-state actors.