By Rachel Licker, Union of Concerned Scientists
The World Health Organization estimates that an alarming 7 million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution. To help tackle this issue, this year’s World Environment Day (June 5) is shining a spotlight on this environmental threat and the multiple benefits derived from tackling it. To learn more, I spoke with Sandra Cavalieri, the Coordinator of the Health Initiative of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Secretariat who is contributing to World Environment Day.
Short-lived climate pollutants: The other global warming gases
When I asked Sandra about the work of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, she let me know that it is the only global initiative focused solely on reducing “short-lived climate pollutants.” These are global warming gases that don’t stick around in the atmosphere as long as the infamous carbon dioxide, but which are big contributors to the problem. This includes things like black carbon (for example, the sooty matter produced by diesel engines and wood stoves), methane (a gas emitted due to human activities like livestock production and landfills as well as from natural sources; methane also leads to the formation of ground-level ozone, another important climate and air pollutant), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs, commonly used for refrigeration and air conditioning).
According to the recent 1.5˚C special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), keeping warming to this level will require significant cuts to the emissions of short-lived climate pollutants; it will require a reduction of methane and black carbon emissions of at least 35% by 2050 relative to 2010 levels.
Air pollution and human health
In addition to the adverse effects of climate change, short-lived climate pollutants also contribute to immediate health-risks to people around the world. For example, Sandra explained how black carbon is a component of a type of air pollution known as PM2.5, or, fine particulate matter that enhances haze. PM2.5 is the most problematic air pollutant for human health, causing a myriad of issues from contributing to premature deaths among people with cardiovascular or pulmonary disease to aggravating asthma. Sandra also pointed out the particularly damaging effects of air pollution on children’s health. According to a World Health Organization report that Sandra shared with me, approximately 93% of children around the world under the age of 5 are exposed to levels of PM2.5 that are higher than recommended air quality guidelines.
Here in the United States, air pollution is surprisingly getting worse in many locations. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report for 2019 found that more than 141 million people live in U.S. counties that received at least one “F” in their unhealthy air report card. The report estimates that this is 7 million more people than their 2018 report.
As a result, reducing short-lived climate pollutant emissions can both help combat global warming and create healthier living conditions for people in the U.S. and around the world.
To engage with World Environment Day this year, cities, regions and countries are making commitments to improve air quality through the WHO, UN Environment, World Bank and Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s BreatheLife campaign. You can get take their Mask Challenge and take an action to reduce your contribution to air pollution (#BeatAirPollution) – whether it be by turning off a car instead of letting it idle, avoiding driving altogether and getting around by using public transit, biking, or walking, or reducing your consumption of meat, and in turn, the release of methane associated with livestock production.
In the longer term, it is critical that decision makers take leadership without delay and enact policies to reduce short-lived climate pollutants – policies that will have benefits to our health today and will help prevent some of the most dangerous impacts of climate change in the future. If we don’t do it for ourselves, let’s do it for our kids whose futures we hold in our hands.