Last week the United Nations put out the State of the Global Climate report. It isn't pretty, but the U.N. is already working to lower dangerous levels of air pollution by 2030. This will protect human health and help reverse the trends of climate change.
In challenging times, people look for bright spots on the horizon. During the Coronavirus pandemic, one of these bright spots has been the positive effect the worldwide stoppages have had on air quality. While several of the viral stories shared as proof of us letting the world breathe, including the dolphins in Venice’s canals, turned out to be fake news the pause in global economic activity has led dangerous air pollution levels to drop.
In fact, satellites from NASA and the European Space Agency have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide over China and Europe and we have seen a drop in carbon emissions for 2020. Clearly, the world’s standstill is not a long-term solution as people need to get back to work, but perhaps we can prevent this air pollution from resurging during the long and difficult world-wide recovery process.
The United Nations is already working on this critical issue as their sustainable development goal 3.9, which has been joined by all 193 nations, aims to end dangerous levels of air pollution by 2030. This ambitious goal works to ensure human health by reducing both ambient air pollution, the air we breathe outside, and household air pollution, the air we breathe in our homes. It is possible for everyone to have healthy and clean air, but it will take a sustained global effort. It is especially important as air pollution is a major contributor to climate change and is the largest environmental health risk for noncontagious diseases, particularly in urban areas.
Astonishingly, 9 in 10 people in urban areas still breathe air that does not meet the quality guidelines, as measured by chemical, biological or physical pollutants in the air. Although these can be caused naturally, human activity is speeding up the pollutants in our air. Whether it is the combustion of fossil fuels both at home and on the road, industry emissions, large agriculture emissions, or waste management humans are making each other sick by polluting the air we breathe. We must do better.
These industries' emissions have very severe and direct implications for human health. As a result of ambient air pollution which is typically what we see in the United States—the air you breathe outside your home is polluted with tiny particles. The pollutants, mainly fine particulate matter, can penetrate deep into our bodies to cause respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and lung cancer among many human health effects. This is particularly dangerous given the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, in other parts of the world people suffer from household air pollution that is caused by incomplete indoor combustion of coal or biomass during cooking or heating with inefficient technologies in poorly ventilated conditions. Large populations of people, especially in the world’s rural areas still depend on these health-damaging fuels to cook as an amazing 90% of the global population breathe unhealthy air within their own homes.
These two types of air pollution kill an estimated 8 million people each year (4.2 million due to ambient and 3.8 million to household pollution) from breathing unhealthy air. Specifically, it is the cause of half of all pneumonia deaths among children under five and can harm their neurological development. These are heartbreaking human health impacts that if we work together we can solve. And there is hope, as the U.N.'s sustainable development goal 3.9 aims to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air pollution by 2030.
The most obvious solution for air pollution is to move from the deep reliance of modern society on polluting fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energies such as solar, wind or geothermal. However, these wholesale changes to industry need to go hand in hand with individual actions such as energy efficiency and reducing our consumption habits, particularly in the United States. This is a difficult challenge to place on Americans, but will we be up to the task? It remains to be seen.
You can also use eco-friendly (public) transportation or your bike, whenever possible, or even better, walk. The latter two are practices that the current social distancing measurements allow. As for air pollution from agriculture, with cattle-raising being the activity that generates the highest levels of carbon emissions, becoming vegetarian or even vegan can be an option, both for your health and cleaner air.
Most important of all: join your local organizations and use elections to learn about candidates' human health and environmental platforms. These local policymakers are often well-positioned to lead the implementation of clean energy sources, to protect ecosystems and to address air quality challenges. If we all play our part, we can enjoy clear-blue skies and reverse the trends of climate change in our post-pandemic world. This is what the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3.9 is all about, protecting our people and our planet.
Judith Arrieta Munguia is a career diplomate and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Mexico in New Delhi. She was an advisor at the Office of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Chief of Staff for Multilateral Affairs. She also coordinated development and economic issues in the missions to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, and to the European Union in Brussels. She was appointed Sous-Sherpa to the High-Level Panel on Water in 2017-2018 and has published several articles on international issues. She holds a master's degree in Diplomacy and International Commerce and a Ph.D. in Political Science.