The World’s First WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health – a blueprint for action against the biggest environmental risk to public health

With every breath you take on a busy city street, you will unknowingly inhale approximately 20 million particles. Scientific evidence has shown that these particles can impact not only your body, but also your mind, causing between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths in the UK and over 7 million globally every year. It is clear that air pollution is a public health emergency for all nations.

WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health

With the need to address air pollution unsurprisingly gaining considerable attention, the World Health Organisation (WHO) timely held the world’s first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health last week. The three-day conference brought together government officials and health experts from over 100 countries, providing a consultation space and facilitating engagement between the two sectors. On its final day, the Conference called for urgent action on tackling air pollution in relation to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Outcomes

By the end of the Conference, participants had set the aspirational goal of reducing the current 7 million deaths resulting from air pollution by two thirds by 2030. 81 additional pledges were also made by individuals, including from the UK. These pledges made, however, are all non-binding.

Seahorse Insight

Firstly, the Conference was organised in collaboration with the following:

·       The UN Environment

·       The World Meteorological Organisation,

·       The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants,

·       The UN Economic Commission for Europe,

·       The World Bank, and

·       The Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This multi-sector collaboration highlighted the urgency and importance of tackling air pollution due to the prestige and weight these bodies have. This collaboration importantly demonstrated how tackling air pollution requires engagement and efforts from a range of sectors; there is not silver bullet to the solution and, instead, stakeholders from ministries of health and beyond, local and national governments, nongovernmental organisations, donors and scientists need to cooperate to create a world free of toxic air pollution. 

The aspirational goal that was set, specifically to reduce the current 7 million deaths from air pollution by two thirds by 2030, has created a measurable target for countries to aspire to and provides context for the initial blueprint to achieving this important target. Although the UN SDGs cite targets of reducing the number of deaths resulting from air pollution (e.g. SDG 3.9 which calls for a substantial reduction in deaths and illness from air pollution), this is the first air pollution goal that has a quantified target. This importantly enables governments to measure their progress to meeting the goal, an essential stimulus for action.

Perhaps most interestingly, however, the Conference received hardly any significant press coverage. This is surprising when it’s the world’s first conference on the topic, attracted officials from over 100 countries, and set an aspirational goal to save millions of people. The lack of media coverage is especially apparent when you compare it to the coverage on the IPPC’s recent Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C. Importantly, however, air pollution and climate change are intrinsically linked. The solutions to this both of these crises complement each other; avoiding fossil fuels in transport and energy productions, stopping the burning of solid and agricultural waste, reducing the use of fertilisers in agriculture, and promoting cleaner and greener fuels and cities would keep warming within 1.5C as well as ensuring we can all breathe safe air. Therefore, if the Conference’s goal of reducing air pollution deaths by one third was met, it would help considerably with global climate change targets and so should not be undermined.

The UK’s commitment

In his closing address at the Conference, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, highlighted the importance of political will and intervention to solve the air pollution crisis; he thought that participants at the Conference have shown this drive and will be key for meeting the Conference’s goal of saving millions of lives.

So how do the UK’s credentials align with this statement?

At the Conference, the UK announced its commitment to ‘put in place a £3.5 billion plan to reduce harmful emissions from road transport and end the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040. Launch a 25 Year Environment Plan in 2018 and put in place legislation for a new Environment Act in 2019.’ All of these commitments are reiterations of previous announcements:

·       The £3.5 billion fund was announced in May 2018 as part of the Government’s response to a joint select committee report on Improving Air Quality.

·       The vehicle ban was announced in July 2017 as part of the plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. 

·       The plan for a new Environment Bill was announced in July 2018.  

Although these commitments offer nothing new, the Environment Bill could be a game-changer for the UK’s leadership in clean air; the Environment Bill will include air quality legislation, including potential air quality targets, with speculation that they may be more stringent than current targets set by the EU. This autumn, we are expecting the draft of the Environment Bill, which will outline the details of a new environment watchdog. We can then expect Government to outline further detail of the wider environmental aspects of the Bill, including clean air, in the next few months.

By putting air quality targets and a framework for setting them into legislation, the Environment Bill will be complementary to the Clean Air Strategy. The Government consulted on the Clean Air Strategy earlier this year and set out measures to achieve compliance with these air quality targets.

With WHO hosting the world’s first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, a milestone has been reached. The Conference engaged multiple sectors and set the measurable goal of reducing the number of deaths from air pollution by two-thirds by 2030, resulting in air pollution to be cemented onto the political agenda cross the world.  We have to wait to see what specific actions materialise and for the UK, it is these next six months that will be especially crucial in determining whether we are able to become a leader in tackling this air quality crisis.