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Air pollution is a silent, invisible and prolific killer
by WHO, UN Environment, agencies
June 2019
“Air pollution is a silent, invisible and prolific killer that is responsible for the premature death of 7 million people each year, disproportionately affecting women, children and poor communities,” says David Boyd, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.
“Failing to ensure clean air constitutes a violation of the rights to life, health and well-being, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment. States must take urgent action to improve air quality to fulfill their human rights obligations.”
Boyd underlined that clean air is a core component of the right to a healthy environment, together with clean water and adequate sanitation, healthy and sustainably produced food, non-toxic environment, healthy biodiversity and a safe climate.
“The right to a healthy environment is fundamental to human well-being and is legally recognised by over 150 States at the national and regional levels. It should be globally reaffirmed to ensure the enjoyment of this right by everyone, everywhere while upholding the human rights principles of universality and non-discrimination.
Every minute of every day, a young child dies of illness caused by air pollution. In that same minute, a dozen adults will die, prematurely, because of dirty air inhaled during their lifetime.
The total - 7 million premature deaths a year - is larger than the number of deaths caused by war, murder, traffic accidents, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined.
Both clean air and clean water are fundamentally important to human life and wellbeing. A person can survive a few days without water, but only a few minutes without air.
Yet clean water is recognised as a basic human right. Clean air is not, even though we have the clear, proven solutions to provide it.
Our scientific understanding of the adverse health effects of air pollution has made great strides in recent years. It is now indisputable that breathing dirty air causes and exacerbates respiratory illnesses. The evidence is equally clear that air pollution causes heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.
Over 90% of the world’s population lives in regions where air pollution exceeds World Health Organization standards. The very worst air quality is found in homes where solid fuels are used for cooking. This means women and children are especially exposed to fine particulate matter and other pollutants, at levels far higher than those found in even the most polluted cities in the world.
It has been a decade since the United Nations General Assembly passed a breakthrough resolution recognising for the first time that access to clean water is a basic human right. But we have yet to see a similar resolution granting the broader right to live in a healthy environment — which fundamentally includes clean air. Surely, the time has come.
Air pollution clearly violates the rights to life and health, the rights of the child, and the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
The good news in amongst the darkness of this data is that air pollution is almost entirely preventable. The solutions are known - from regulation of fossil fuels and crop burning to clean technologies. As an added bonus, many of these solutions can also help stem climate change.
There are two main causes of air pollution, both of which can be tackled. The first is ambient or outdoor air pollution, caused largely by industry, coal-fired electricity generation and transport. The second is household air pollution, mainly from cooking and heating with solid fuels and burning kerosene for lighting.
Combined, these can leave people in some countries with little respite from dirty air whether they are indoors or outdoors. In India, for example, ambient and household air pollution was attributed to some 1.2 million deaths in 2017, according to a study in The Lancet.
In a recent report to the Human Rights Council, I set forth seven key steps that countries need to take to protect human rights from air pollution. These include establishing air quality monitoring networks; quantifying the main sources of air pollution; engaging and informing the public; enacting laws, regulations, and air quality standards; developing national action plans to achieve those standards; allocating adequate resources to implement the plan; and evaluating progress, and if necessary, taking stronger actions.
Making the switch to clean cooking stoves and fuels needs to be a global priority. This will protect the health of millions of people, especially in developing countries, and deliver significant economic and environmental knock-on benefits.
India and Indonesia have made significant progress by providing free liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) stoves to over 100 million poor families. These stoves dramatically reduce air pollution, save time previously spent gathering fuels such as firewood, and emit fewer greenhouse gases than solid fuel stoves. This may therefore be the only situation in the world where it makes sense to subsidise the increased use of fossil fuels.
The World Bank has estimated that switching all remaining households to clean stoves and fuels by 2030 would require an investment of approximately $5 billion per year.
Weigh that against the health benefits, the time saved and economic opportunities it opens up for women, the quality of life improvements, the reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and the reduced pressure on forests (for firewood). It’s a fantastic investment.
It also fits easily within the US$100 billion in annual financial assistance that wealthy nations have committed to provide to low-income countries to address the challenges of climate change.
Other proven solutions to reducing air pollution include replacing coal-fired electricity with renewables, emphasising walking and cycling in cities, electrifying public transit, ending fossil fuel subsidies, improving waste management and helping farmers to shift to cleaner practices.
Everyone needs to breathe clean air. That billions of people today are breathing dirty and deadly air constitutes a global environmental crisis. Urgent action from governments across the world is needed.
Not only do we have an opportunity to save tens of millions of lives in the decades ahead by reducing air pollution, we have a moral obligation to do so.
June 2019
A report by the Centre for Science and Environment has found air pollution is responsible for 12.5 per cent of all deaths in India, including more than 100,000 children under five every year.
The noxious air hanging over India''s towns and cities kills more than 100,000 children under five every year, a damning study found.
India has repeatedly failed to address environmental concerns. Last year a UN report found 14 of the world''s 15 most polluted cities were Indian.
And despite calls to action against pollution around the globe, Indian politicians mostly side-stepped the issue in the last election.
The State of India''s Environment (SoE) Report found air pollution is responsible for 12.5 per cent of all deaths in the country - painting a bleak picture of the environmental record of recent Indian governments.
Carried out by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the report also found 86 per cent of Indian water bodies were "critically polluted".
It added the country''s progress in renewable energy was "dismal". As of last month, India had 280,000 electric vehicles, a fraction of the target of 15-16 million by 2020.
India''s Greenhouse gas emissions rose more than 20 per cent between 2010 and 2014, while its natural gas and hydroelectric plants were in a "shambles", it continued.
The report found gas-based power plants are running at 24 per cent of their capacity, and hydropower projects are running at just 19 per cent.
"The country''s progress in renewable energy in 2018-19 has also been dismal," the CSE said. "In wind, the country met only 6.3 per cent of the target this year. In solar, it met 5.86 per cent."
India also recorded a 56 per cent rise in the number of industries creating hazardous waste between 2009 and 2016-17, while the number of grossly polluting industries soared 136 per cent between 2011 and 2018. India is projected to add 416 million town and city dwellers to the world''s urban population by 2050.
Balkans faces alarming levels of air pollution from coal fired power plants. (AP)
People in all major cities across the western Balkans face alarming levels of air pollution that are reducing their life expectancies because the underdeveloped, politically fragile region is still heavily reliant on burning coal to generate power, the U.N. said this week in a new report.
The report released by the U.N. Environment Program was prepared in cooperation with the World Health Organization and air quality management institutions in Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. It was based on data collected for a minimum of 274 days per year.
“The population is exposed to some of the highest concentrations of air pollution in Europe . up to five times higher than the national and the EU guideline levels,” the report said, identifying the region’s lack of access to modern renewable energy sources as a major cause of its air pollution.
Fifteen active coal-fired power plants, some of them obsolete, in five western Balkan countries pump substantial amounts of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and dust or particulate matter into the air. Also, as many as 88% of the region’s 7.3 million buildings use decentralized heating systems that use power inefficiently.
In the 18 major cities analyzed, the report said air pollution was causing a substantial number of premature deaths. It said, on average, 20% of the estimated 130,000 years of life that have been lost over a 10-year period due to air pollution were taking place before age 65.
“Air pollution in the Western Balkan cities causes between 15% and 19% of total mortality and reduces life expectancy by between 1.1 and 1.3 years,” the report said.
The report says, in the Balkan cities that were examined, the daily health restrictions for exposure to large-diameter particles of soot and other matter, or PM10, were exceeded between 120 and 180 days per year. That is much higher than allowed by national and EU laws, which restrict the number of such days to only 35 a year.

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Nature’s dangerous decline ‘Unprecedented’. Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’
by IPBES Chair, Robert Watson
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
May 2019
Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’. Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’. Current global response insufficient; ‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature; Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good.
Most comprehensive assessment of its kind; 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction.
Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely, warns a landmark new report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the summary of which was approved at the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary, meeting last week (29 April – 4 May) in Paris.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Robert Watson.
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
“The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he said.
“Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”
“The member States of IPBES Plenary have now acknowledged that, by its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but also that such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good,” Watson said.
The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is the most comprehensive ever completed. It is the first intergovernmental Report of its kind and builds on the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, introducing innovative ways of evaluating evidence.
Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the Report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.
Based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources, the Report also draws (for the first time ever at this scale) on indigenous and local knowledge, particularly addressing issues relevant to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.
“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), who co-chaired the Assessment with Prof. Josef Settele (Germany) and Prof. Eduardo S. Brondízio (Brazil and USA).
“The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”
The Report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reefforming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.
The picture is less clear for insect species, but available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% being threatened.
At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1,000 more breeds still threatened.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Settele.
“This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
To increase the policy-relevance of the Report, the assessment’s authors have ranked, for the first time at this scale and based on a thorough analysis of the available evidence, the five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far.
These culprits are, in descending order: (1) changes in land and sea use; (2) direct exploitation of organisms; (3) climate change; (4) pollution and (5) invasive alien species.
The Report notes that, since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius – with climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics – impacts expected to increase over the coming decades, in some cases surpassing the impact of land and sea use change and other drivers.
Despite progress to conserve nature and implement policies, the Report also finds that global goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.
With good progress on components of only four of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, it is likely that most will be missed by the 2020 deadline.
Current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the Sustainable Development Goals, related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15).
Loss of biodiversity is therefore shown to be not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue as well.
“To better understand and, more importantly, to address the main causes of damage to biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people, we need to understand the history and global interconnection of complex demographic and economic indirect drivers of change, as well as the social values that underpin them,” said Prof. Brondízio.
“Key indirect drivers include increased population and per capita consumption; technological innovation, which in some cases has lowered and in other cases increased the damage to nature; and, critically, issues of governance and accountability.
A pattern that emerges is one of global interconnectivity and ‘telecoupling’ – with resource extraction and production often occurring in one part of the world to satisfy the needs of distant consumers in other regions.”
Other notable findings of the Report include:
Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.
More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.
The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45% and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year – having nearly doubled since 1980.
Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.
Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992.
Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 (591-595) - a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
Negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios explored in the Report, except those that include transformative change – due to the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change, although with significant differences between regions.
The Report also presents a wide range of illustrative actions for sustainability and pathways for achieving them across and between sectors such as agriculture, forestry, marine systems, freshwater systems, urban areas, energy, finance and many others. It highlights the importance of, among others, adopting integrated management and cross-sectoral approaches that take into account the trade-offs of food and energy production, infrastructure, freshwater and coastal management, and biodiversity conservation.
Also identified as a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.
“IPBES presents the authoritative science, knowledge and the policy options to decisionmakers for their consideration,” said IPBES Executive Secretary, Dr. Anne Larigauderie.
“We thank the hundreds of experts, from around the world, who have volunteered their time and knowledge to help address the loss of species, ecosystems and genetic diversity – a truly global and generational threat to human well-being.”
* See link below for further information on Key Issues from the Report:
* IPBES Global Assessment Report summary for policy makers (40pp):

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