Cooking and eating – caring for our families at home, moving
on to work, school and markets, and then back home again. These are universal
rituals that fill our days and the lives of people the world over.
there is an unrecognised health threat lurking in the shadows of our most basic
routines: air pollution.
It may appear as a faint haze on the urban horizon. Or it
may be visible, as black and billowing smoke pouring out of the kitchen of a
poor rural home. According to the latest World Health Organisation data, air
pollution causes over one third of deaths and disability from strokes, lung
cancer, and chronic respiratory disease – and over a quarter of heart disease.
All in all, it is responsible for one in every eight deaths worldwide. About 7 million
people every year.
Following the signing of the Paris Agreement, which makes a
historic commitment to limit global temperature rise to “well below”
2 degrees Celsius, we need to consider how to expedite climate actions. One of
the fastest and most cost-effective ways for targeting the gradual and often
imperceptible changes wrought by climate may be by tackling the visible: smog
and haze over our kitchens and landscapes.
Scientists know that many air pollutants are also
climate-change drivers. Take indoor air pollution, largely caused by the
burning of coal, kerosene, wood, and dung in smoky and inefficient cookstoves,
by 3 billion poor households worldwide.
Around 4 million people die annually from such
pollution, mostly women and children who spend the most time around the family
cookstove – inhaling soot-filled smoke in a brew of other toxic and
When household pollution drifts outside, it releases large
quantities of black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant – making home
cookstoves the second largest contributor to black carbon emissions globally,
behind forest grassland and agricultural fires. Black carbon warms the
atmosphere, inhibits crop growth, changes local rainfall patterns, and
accelerates snow and glacier melt – threatening the reliability of water
supplies, crops and livelihoods.
Clean fuels such as biogas, ethanol, solar, LPG and
cleaner-burning biomass cookstoves, provide a cost-effective way to reduce
black carbon, CO2 emissions, while radically improving the health of the poor.
In Nigeria, early results from a major new study show significant benefits to
newborn health when pregnant women switch from biomass and kerosene, still used
by 75% of the population, to cleaner-burning ethanol.
For outdoor air pollution, meanwhile, similar air pollution,
climate and health synergies also exist. Cleaner power production, more
efficient-building energy systems, renewable energy, and better waste
management can reduce long-lived CO2 emissions, short-lived climate pollutants
such as black carbon and methane, and the fine particulates that cause smog.
Currently, 98% of large cities (with populations over
100 000) in low and middle-income countries have unhealthy air
quality, according to new WHO data, as do 44% of high-income cities – including
major European cities. Widespread reliance upon diesel vehicles – which emit
black carbon along with carcinogens in their soot and smoke – is a crosscutting
Prioritising clean rapid transit, and walking and cycling
networks, reduces air pollution and emissions of climate pollutants. These also
have “multiplier” effects on health – reducing high rates of
pedestrian traffic injury in developing countries – and stimulating physical
activity in higher income cities – to combat the epidemic of obesity and
Examples of bold action already exist. Oslo will ban cars
from its city centre by 2019. Curitiba, Brazil is pioneering efforts to develop
extensive bus, walking and cycling networks, green spaces and recycling as well
as waste-management systems.
What is needed now is a global coalition of health,
environment and climate actors, to expand awareness and drive change at the
grassroots, where it will count.
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) to reduce
short-lived climate pollutants is one such partnership involving over 50
countries and 61 UN agencies and NGOs. The CCAC is focusing on reducing black
carbon and methane from urban transport and municipal waste, among other sources.
The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
is helping to introduce cleaner cooking solutions in developing countries.
Cities are now coming together to create collective action that protects and
promotes health, reduces pollution and mitigates climate change.
WHO is accelerating its global monitoring of air-pollution
exposures, updating guidelines, consolidating evidence of health and climate
synergies and expanding advocacy about the health impacts of this modern-day
scourge. The UN Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child movement has made
combating indoor air pollution a key part of its updated Global Strategy for
Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health for the next 15 years.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to
“substantially reduce” air pollution-related deaths by 2030, for
access to clean energy in the home and for clean air in cities. We call upon
the global community to set clear mechanisms for delivering that, aiming to
drastically cut deaths from air pollution by one-half or more.
By cutting air pollutants from sources that also emit
climate pollutants, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and turn the tide on
the epidemic of non-communicable diseases. We can translate the Paris Agreement
into one of the strongest public-health agreements of our time.
The solutions exist. We need to spread the word about their
health and environment benefits, and catalyse political action. Fast action to
tackle air pollution can’t come soon enough – for the health of our children
and the planet.
Dr Margaret Chan is the director-general of the World Health
Organisation, Børge Brende is Norway’s minister of foreign affairs and Amina
Mohammed is the environment minister of Nigeria.