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Sustainable Business 2019

Why we must reduce levels of air pollution – now

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Rawpixel

Niklas Hagelberg

Senior Programme Officer
Coordinator, Climate Change Programme

Air pollution is a global public health emergency. Today, seven million people are dying prematurely each year from breathing polluted air.

Air pollution level is an emergency that disproportionately affects children in urban and suburban areas, as they breathe in car emissions on their way to school or while they wait for the school bus, standing at exhaust pipe height.

Climate change and air pollution are closely linked. The greenhouse gases polluting our air — principally carbon dioxide but also methane, nitrous oxide and others — are major drivers of climate change.

Air pollutants enter our atmosphere and act like a blanket trapping warmth, resulting in temperature increases of both the air and our oceans, the melting of ice caps and extreme weather events. These, in turn, put millions of people at risk of food and water shortages.

Financially, we simply can’t afford rising global temperatures

The earth has already warmed by 1°C and the impacts are here: devastating hurricanes, intense droughts, greater floods, superstorms and deadly wildfires, many of which are the worst on record. And this is just the beginning. If we can’t reduce emissions and control the warming, we risk runaway climate change with huge financial costs. Protecting our homes, cities and people from extreme weather will cost more than the world’s current gross domestic product.

The good news is that immediate changes to air pollution levels also have immediate effects.

The volume of polluting emissions we pump into the air — 50% of which have been emitted since the first episode of Seinfeld (1989) — simply must be brought under control.

Governments are acting to protect citizens’ futures

Many governments are taking the lead by creating regulations and policies that promote a cleaner and more sustainable environment. Clean air is a fundamental right, enshrined in the constitution of more than 100 countries. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change was a pledge signed by 195 countries to reduce emissions.

As governments begin to act on their commitments, they are putting into place regulations for polluters as well as incentives that promote green business opportunities and open markets for innovative companies to drive sustainable change.

Eat less meat: switch to an electric car – your choices will help

Citizens can be a powerful force for change: by making lifestyle changes, switching to electric vehicles, seeking out renewable energy or reducing their methane footprint by eating less meat, they are creating markets and driving demand for cleaner and more energy-efficient products and companies.

Businesses with green incentives appeal to consumers

The private sector is increasingly investing in research and development, and using renewables and energy-efficient technologies to power production plants, transport goods and design greener office buildings. These changes have a clear economic benefit. They allow companies to generate substantial savings, position them as leaders in view of the growing public appetite for sustainable choices and ensure that they are prepared for a changing regulatory context that will usher in the new sustainable age.  

At UN Environment, we support governments in their work on multiple fronts. Our Electric Mobility Programme helps countries to develop policies, exchange best practices, and pilot technology options to track electric vehicle uptake as well as to calculate emissions and economic benefits.

The global Breathe Life campaign, led by the World Health Organization, the Climate & Clean Air Coalition and UN Environment, mobilises cities and individuals to protect our health and our planet from the effects of air pollution. And the theme for UN World Environment Day this year (5 June 2019) was air pollution, designed to step-change governments’ attention and focus on this topic.

The good news is that immediate changes to air pollution levels also have immediate effects. Quick action on reducing highly potent, short-lived climate pollutants — methane, tropospheric ozone, hydrofluorocarbons and black carbon — can significantly decrease the chances of triggering dangerous climate tipping points.

While prompted by the gravest of existential fears, the changes we make this decade are changes that will result in a far more positive future: urban streets free of exhaust fumes, horizons free of smog, soot-blackened buildings and lungs consigned to history books, and more blue sky in every direction.

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