Sometimes you can’t even see it, but air pollution is everywhere.
Perhaps you think that air pollution doesn’t affect you because you don’t live in a city shrouded in smog. You are most likely wrong. Statistically, nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollutants that exceed World Health Organization safe levels. This means that with every breath, you are sucking in tiny particles that attack your lungs, heart and brain. For millions of people across the globe, this is causing a host of problems – illness, lower IQs and death chief among them.
We can’t stop breathing. But we can do something about the quality of our air, and global action is growing at all levels. To have any chance of truly clearing the air, however, we need to know our enemy better and what we can do to defeat it.
What is air pollution and where does it come from?
Air pollution is broken down into ambient (outdoor) air pollution and indoor air pollution. This pollution comes from many sources, the majority of them a result of human activity:
- the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal to generate electricity for homes and businesses, or petrol and diesel to power our cars, buses, ships and planes
- industrial processes, particularly from the chemical and mining industries
- agriculture, which is a major source of methane and ammonia
- waste treatment and management, particularly landfills
- dirty indoor cooking and heating systems, a major problem in the developing world
- volcanic eruptions, dust storms and other natural processes
These sources spew out a range of substances including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ground level ozone, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons and lead – all of which are harmful to human health.
Deaths and illnesses from air pollution are largely down to tiny, invisible airborne particles, known as particulate matter, which can be as small as a molecule. These particles are clumps of poison, containing anything from black carbon (soot), to sulphates to lead. The smallest particles are the deadliest: PM2.5 particles, which are 2.5 microns or less in diameter, and PM10, which are 10 microns or less in diameter. These tiny killers bypass your body’s defences and lodge in your lungs, bloodstream and brain.
How much of this pollution we breathe in is dependent on many factors, such as access to clean energy for cooking and heating, the time of day and the weather. Rush hour is an obvious source of local pollution, but air pollution can travel long distances, sometimes across continents on international weather patterns. Nobody is safe.
What is air pollution doing to us?
Air pollution has been called a major global health epidemic, causing one in nine of all deaths. It also has massive negative impacts on climate change and economies.
In 2016, PM2.5 exposure reduced average global life expectancy at birth by approximately one year.
Around seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor. The three biggest killers attributable to air pollution are stroke (2.2 million deaths), heart disease (2.0 million) and lung disease and cancer (1.7 million deaths).
Ambient (outdoor) air pollution accounts for:
- 25 per cent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
- 17 per cent of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
- 16 per cent of all deaths from stroke
- 15 per cent of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
- 8 per cent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Air pollution doesn’t just kill, however. It also contributes to other illnesses, hampers development and causes mental health problems.
One study found that ambient PM2.5 contributed to 3.2 million cases of diabetes in 2016.
Research from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows that breathing in particulate air pollution can damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development in young children – with lifelong implications. An estimated 17 million babies under one year old live in areas where air pollution is six times higher than safe limits.
Other studies have linked air pollution to lower intelligence levels, with the average impact equivalent to one lost year of education, and to an increased risk of dementia, with those living closest to major traffic arteries up to 12 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with the condition.
If you are lucky enough to not suffer the negative health impacts of air pollution, it can still hit you in the pocket. Air pollution creates a burden on healthcare systems, which costs taxpayers money.
Air pollution from energy production in the U.S. caused at least US$131 billion in damage to its economy, including increased healthcare costs, in 2011.
One Oxford University study found that air pollution from cars and vans cost society 6 billion pounds per year.
The European Environment Agency found that emissions from 14,000 industrial facilities in Europe cost society and the economy up to 189 billion euros in 2012.
Without action, the costs will rise. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the annual global welfare costs of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution are projected to be US$18-25 trillion in 2060. In addition, the costs of pain and suffering from illness are estimated at around US$2.2 trillion by 2060.
Air pollution doesn’t just impact human health and economic growth. Many of the pollutants also cause global warming. Take black carbon, which is produced by diesel engines, burning trash and dirty cookstoves. Black carbon is deadly, but it is also a short-lived climate pollutant. If we were to reduce the emissions of such pollutants, we could slow global warming by up to 0.5°C over the next few decades.
Methane, a large percentage of which comes from agriculture, is another culprit. Methane emissions contribute to ground-level ozone, which causes asthma and other respiratory illnesses. It is also a more potent global warming gas than carbon dioxide – its impact is 34 times greater over a 100-year period, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.
Where is air pollution worst?
Air pollution is a problem across the globe, but it disproportionately affects people living in developing nations. For example, the 3.8 million people who die each year from indoor air pollution are overwhelmingly from countries where people living in poverty are forced to cook, or heat their homes, with dirty fuels in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
According to the World Health Organization’s air quality database, 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines. In high-income countries, the proportion is 40 per cent.
Delhi, India and Cairo, Egypt have the worst PM10 pollution levels out of the world’s megacities (over 14 million people), but Argentina, Brazil, China, Mexico and Turkey all have cities in the top-ten list of most-polluted places.
What is being done about air pollution?
A global movement to address air pollution is growing. BreatheLife – a global network headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is running cleaner air initiatives that cover 39 cities, regions, and countries, reaching over 80 million citizens.
By instituting policies and programmes to curb transport and energy emissions and to promote the use of clean energy, cities are proving to be focal points where change that improves the lives of the most people possible is happening. From Accra to Mexico City, local governments are implementing plans to improve air quality. And change is happening. The World Health Organization in 2018 found that more than 57 per cent of cities in the Americas and more than 61 per cent of cities in Europe had seen a fall in PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter between 2010 and 2016.
The rise of renewable energy is also set to make a big difference, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments each year.
What can I do?
We are all part of the problem. Business, public buildings and households account for around half of all PM2.5 and carbon monoxide emissions. But this means we are all part of the solution. By making small changes to our lives, we can all play our part in clearing the air.
For instance, by reducing consumption of meat and dairy products, individuals can contribute to cutting harmful methane emissions. There is a wide range of other areas where people can make a difference when it comes to reducing air pollution.
Compost food and garden items. Recycle non-organic trash if available. Reuse grocery bags and dispose of remaining trash by local collection. Never burn trash, as this contributes directly to air pollution.
Cook and heat clean
Burning coal and biomass (e.g. wood) contributes to indoor air pollution when used for cooking and outdoor air pollution when used for heating. Check efficiency ratings for home heating systems and cookstoves to use models that save money and protect health.
Use public transportation, cycle or walk. Consider switching to a hybrid or electric if you must drive. Diesel vehicles, particularly older ones, are large contributors of black carbon, which are carcinogenic for health and damaging to our climate.
Rethink your energy use
Turn off lights and electronics not in use. Use energy-efficient equipment. Rooftop solar panels may be an option to generate hot water and power.
Call for change
Call on local leaders to adopt national air quality standards that meet WHO guidelines. Support policies that strengthen emissions standards and provide incentives for purchase of cleaner vehicles, low-energy appliances and energy-efficient housing.
Watch our short animations for more information.
>I don’t drive during rush hour
>I walk to work
>I compost my waste
>I recycle my waste
>I don’t burn waste
>I use renewable energy to power my home
>I use clean energy to cook
>I check my air pollution levels
The Meeting Point between Pandemic and Environmental
Humans in the Anthropocene
Humans are born from history, on the other hand, history is born from human life. Currently, humans have been in the Anthropocene, the era after the Holocene, a time when humans were more powerful in nature. This results in an imbalance of give and take activities between humans and the nature they inhabit. With rapid population growth, human needs will also increase. This increase in human needs will have an impact on the availability of existing natural resources. Exploitation of natural products such as coal, natural gas and others, this is accompanied by waste from production and human activities that produce waste in many sectors of life. What has been exploited by humans the impact is no longer comparable to what nature gives. Although nature has the ability to self-regenerate, but with human activities that are so aggressive in this era of globalization, it defeats the natural processes of nature. The presence of factories around the world after the steam engine and the industrial revolution occurred, weapons such as missiles, atomic bombs as a means of war for fellow humans, rockets and all kinds of vehicles of human ambition to export nature, all produce residual waste that is released, resulting in a large carbon footprint. affect the atmosphere which is as a protector and temperature regulator on earth. Not to mention the mining of many other crops.
The question that may often be asked but doesn’t need to be answered is “why should humans care about all that?”
In the last 100 years, the earth’s average temperature has increased between 0.4 to 0.8 C. The ambition of the countries in the world today is 1.5 degrees Celsius, whereas humans are facing the risk of an increase of 4 degrees, which means it will be the same with the temperatures that occurred between the Ice Age and the Holocene. In other words, humans are still far behind with the rate of destruction that exists. This warming will result in the emergence of many disasters in human life. Global warming is expected to cause the glaciers at both poles to melt and make the volume of sea water increase, most likely some islands on earth are at risk of sinking, especially the Indonesian archipelago which is a young land in geological history. Not only that, other impacts will be felt on climate change, a matter of months, days, seasons. Nature which is the main benchmark for farmers, fishermen and various sectors of work related to climate and seasons will feel a prediction crisis, several regions in Indonesia experience crop failures due to the calculations they do based on seasonal calculations are no longer accurate, even though these calculations have been passed down from generation to generation. inherited. But climate change and global warming have messed up astronomy. Maybe this is also what makes the Mayan calendar (piktun) only predict until 2012.
Not only the estimated harvest season, natural imbalances also cause the spread of disease vectors from animals to humans. Until now there has been no single plausible theory that definitely and accurately explains where COVID-19 came from and how it will disappear. Research is still being done, all theories put forward by scientists can be true. But scientists who study the environment, viruses, pandemics, health have found this conundrum, which all starts with “environmental imbalance”. If we describe briefly, in the food chain there is one missing which then results in advantages and disadvantages between predators and prey. If the rice field snakes are hunted by farmers, the rats will live more, and then they will eat the rice too, eventually the farmers will fail to harvest. Likewise, the case of COVID-19, with the large number of killings of wildlife, has shifted the pattern of the food chain.
Covid 19 and the balance of nature
There are many theories that explain the origin of the pandemic that humans are experiencing now, but until now there is no definite news about where the origin and cause of the catastrophe exists. US intelligence agencies say they may never be able to identify the origins of Covid-19, but they have concluded the virus was not created as a biological weapon. Apart from the specifics of covid 19 which is a virus, whose existence can never be seen with the naked eye, a number of scientists believe that the covid 19 pandemic occurs due to natural imbalances. The COVID-19 pandemic which was determined by the World Health Organization (WHO) or world health agency on March 11, 2020, could also occur due to the interruption of the food cycle which resulted in the explosion of a component of life without a predator in the same period of time.
The SARS-VoV-2 virus is a disease that originates from animals and is transmitted to humans. It is possible that the disease originated in bats, then spread through other mammals.
Even though it is not made in a laboratory, it does not mean that humans have no role in the ongoing pandemic. A recent study by scientists from Australia and the US found that human actions on natural habitats, loss of biodiversity and destruction of ecosystems contributed to the spread of the virus.
The number of infectious diseases has more than tripled every decade since the 1980s. More than two-thirds of these diseases come from animals, and about 70% of that number comes from wild animals. Infectious diseases that we know, for example: Ebola, HIV, swine flu and bird flu, are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.
COVID-19 is also spreading rapidly as the world’s population is becoming more and more closely connected. This situation that surprised many people, had actually been warned by scientists for a long time. Joachim Spangenberg, Vice President of the European Institute for Sustainability Research, said that by destroying ecosystems, humans create conditions that cause animal viruses to spread to humans. “We created this situation, not the animals,” said Spangenberg. In 2016 UNEP Frontier has been warned that at least every four months a new zoonotic disease will emerge. This is due to human activities as follows:
Deforestation and habitat destruction
because humans are increasingly opening up areas inhabited by wild animals to graze livestock and take natural resources, humans are also increasingly susceptible to pathogens that have never previously left the area, and leave the bodies of the animals they inhabit.
“We’re getting closer to wild animals,” said Yan Xiang, a virologist at the University of Texas Center for Health Sciences. “And that puts us in touch with those viruses.” While David Hayman, professor of infectious disease ecology at Massey University, New Zealand said, the risk is also increasing not only through humans entering natural habitats, but also through animals. human pet
In addition, the destruction of ecosystems also has an impact on which types of viruses thrive in the wild and how they spread.
David Hayman emphasized, in the last few centuries, tropical forests have been reduced by 50%. This has a very bad impact on the ecosystem. In a number of cases, scientists have succeeded in revealing, if animals at the top of the food chain went extinct, animals at the bottom, such as mice that carried more pathogens, took their place at the top of the food chain.
“Each species has a special role in the ecosystem. If one species takes the place of another, this can have a major impact in terms of disease risk. And often we can’t predict the risk,” explains Alica Latinne of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Evidence showing a link between the destruction of ecosystems and the increased risk of spreading new infections has led experts to emphasize the importance of the concept of “One Health”.
Wild animal trade
Markets selling wild animals and products from wild animals are another incubator for infectious diseases. Scientists consider it very likely that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease COVID-19 emerged in a wild animal market in Wuhan, China.
Spangenberg explains that placing sick and stressed animals in cramped cages is an “ideal way” to create new pathogens, and spread disease from one species to another. Therefore, many scientists have urged the holding of stricter regulations for the wild animal market.
That is also the call of Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Chief Executive of the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. He has called for a worldwide ban on wild animal markets. But Mrema also reveals that for millions of people, especially in poorer regions of the world, these markets are a source of income.
Indonesia’s position in the eyes of the world
Indonesia is a country with a very large tropical forest, in COP 26 it was stated that Indonesia is the last bastion of planet earth along with the Amazon and the Congo forests. save a lot of germplasm, Indonesia’s forest area totals 128 million ha. Indonesia is a country with the third largest tropical rainforest in the world. That means, a lot of germplasm stored in it. This will also be a big scourge if the vast forest cannot be maintained properly. The expansion of residential areas, planting of oil palm, clearing land and roads will destroy some of the existing germplasm. Currently, humans have lost 8% of animal species and another 22%. If Indonesia participates in efforts to reduce and destroy the environment intentionally or unintentionally, we can estimate what will happen in the future.
How do greenhouse gases actually warm the planet?
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – the atmospheric gases responsible for causing global warming and climatic change – are critical to understanding and addressing the climate crisis. Despite an initial dip in global GHG emissions due to COVID-19, the United Nations Environment Programme’s latest Emissions Gap Report (EGR) expects a strong rebound in 2021, when emissions are expected to be only slightly lower than the record levels of 2019.
While most GHGs are naturally occurring, human activities have also been leading to a problematic increase in the amount of GHG emitted and their concentration in the atmosphere. This increased concentration, in turn, can lead to adverse effects on climate. Effects include increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events – including flooding, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes – that affect millions of people and cause trillions in economic losses.
The Emissions Gap Report found that if we do not halve annual GHG emissions by 2030, it will be very difficult to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Based on current unconditional pledges to reduce emissions, the world is on a path to see global warming of 2.7 °C by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial levels.
“Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions endanger human and environmental health,” says Mark Radka, Chief of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch. “And the impacts will become more widespread and severed without strong climate action.”
So how exactly do GHG emissions warm the planet and what can we do?
What are the major greenhouse gases?
Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide are the major GHGs. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years, methane for around a decade and nitrous oxide for approximately 120 years. Measured over a 20-year period, methane is 80 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming, while nitrous oxide is 280 times more potent.
Coal, oil and natural gas continue to power many parts of the world. Carbon is the main element in these fuels, and when they’re burned to generate electricity, power transportation or provide heat, they produce CO2, a colourless, odourless gas.
Oil and gas extraction, coal mining and waste landfills account for 55 per cent of human-caused methane emissions. Approximately 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions are attributable to cows, sheep and other ruminants that ferment food in their stomachs. Manure decomposition is another agricultural source of the gas, as is rice cultivation.
Human-caused nitrous oxide emissions largely arise from agriculture practices. Bacteria in soil and water naturally convert nitrogen into nitrous oxide, but fertilizer use and run-off add to this process by putting more nitrogen into the environment.
What are the other greenhouse gases?
Fluorinated gases – such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – are GHGs that do not occur naturally. Hydrofluorocarbons are refrigerants used as alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which depleted the ozone layer and were phased out thanks to the Montreal Protocol. The other gases have industrial and commercial uses.
While fluorinated gases are far less prevalent than other GHGs and do not deplete the ozone layer like CFCs, they are still very powerful. Over a 20-year period, the various fluorinated gases’ global warming potential ranges from 460–16,300 times greater than that of CO2.
Water vapour is the most abundant GHG in the atmosphere and is the biggest overall contributor to the greenhouse effect. However, almost all the water vapour in the atmosphere comes from natural processes. Human emissions are very small and thus relatively less impactful.
What is the greenhouse effect?
The Earth’s surface absorbs about 48 per cent of incoming solar energy, while the atmosphere absorbs 23 per cent. The rest is reflected back into space. Natural processes ensure that the amount of incoming and outgoing energy are equal, keeping the planet’s temperature stable,
However, GHGs, unlike other atmospheric gases such as oxygen and nitrogen, are opaque to outgoing infrared radiation. As the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere increases due to human-caused emissions, energy radiated from the surface becomes trapped in the atmosphere, unable to escape the planet. This energy returns to the surface, where it is reabsorbed.
Since more energy enters than exits the planet, surface temperatures increase until a new balance is achieved. This temperature increase has long-term climate impacts and affects myriad natural systems.
What can we do to reduce GHG emissions?
Shifting to renewable energy, putting a price on carbon and phasing out coal are all important elements in reducing GHG emissions. Ultimately, stronger nationally determined contributions are needed to accelerate this reduction to preserve long-term human and environmental health.
“We need to implement strong policies that back the raised ambitions,” says Radka. “We cannot continue down the same path and expect better results. Action is needed now.”
During COP26, the European Union and the United States launched the Global Methane Pledge, which will see over 100 countries aim to reduce 30 per cent of methane emissions in the fuel, agriculture and waste sectors by 2030.
UNEP has outlined its six-sector solution, which can reduce 29–32 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2030 to meet the 1.5°C warming limit. UNEP also maintains an online “Climate Note,” a tool that visualizes the changing state of the climate with a baseline of 1990.
Despite the challenges, there is reason to be positive. From 2010 to 2021, policies were put in place which will lower annual emissions by 11 gigatons by 2030 compared to what would have otherwise happened.
Through its other multilateral environmental agreements and reports, UNEP raises awareness and advocates for effective environmental action. UNEP will continue to work closely with its 193 Member States and other stakeholders to set the environmental agenda and advocate for a drastic reduction in GHG emissions.
Beyond these movements, individuals can also join the UN’s #ActNow campaign for ideas to take climate-positive actions.
By making choices that have less harmful effects on the environment, everyone can be part of the solution and influence change. Speaking up is one way to multiply impact and create change on a much bigger scale.
The social aspect of biodiversity reduction in Brazil
What most people ignore is that climate change is also a social issue, arising from unawareness of the human population about the impact of their activities. Biodiversity plays a key role in ecosystems and also services benefits to the tourism industry. Marine life biodiversity specifically plays a role in attracting tourists for activities like scuba diving, snorkeling and other observation activities alike. Currently, the Brazilian Guitarfish, commonly found in the South Atlantic Brazilian waters, specifically around the South coast of Rio De Janeiro is facing massive decline in numbers, and is also on the list of critically endangered species.
One major reason for the rapid decline in numbers of Brazilian Guitarfish is overfishing of the female population for illegal, highly valued meat sale in fish markets. Most fishermen catch the female guitarfish along with their little offspring in shallow waters around Rio De Janeiro. The decline in species of guitarfish is mostly among the female population, however this impacts the long term numbers of the guitarfish population. Fishermen who catch guitarfish and engage in the illegal meat industry know little about the impact created by their fishing activities on biodiversity in the oceans. A valid solution to solving the issue of high levels of guitarfish fishing in Brazil is empowering fishermen to engage in other trades and businesses that are more sustainable with steady profits, simply raising awareness about the downside of overfishing endangered species might not be enough. A dollar is a dollar, or in this case a real is a real.
An alternate model for sustainable fishing has been developed in Fuji, specifically to protect the coastline that attracts tourism across the year. The local government in fishing villages is working in collaboration with fishers to ensure that they have access to a greater number of opportunities, even outside the fishing industry. Moreover, the local government is regulating the prices of fish meat and creating a bandwidth for sustainable profits by encouraging fishing of species that are more abundant in the local waters. This is creating a low incentive situation for Fujian fishers to fish endangered species and engage in local trade. This unique model, with a mix of government involvement and local incentives, can be amplified to other countries like Brazil too.
While most experts talk about climate change, they ignore the social aspect of climate change, which is perhaps the biggest contributor. Human activities impacting climate change don’t just arise from unawareness but also from lack of other opportunities that can incentivise a change in decision making. Creating consumer end awareness about the downside of consuming illegal meat is also crucial. The same can be done in fish markets with the use of artwork to support behavioral change. Brazilian Guitarfish also carry high content of Mercury and chemicals and are therefore not the safest to consume in the unregulated illegal meat industry, without safety approvals from the government. Making consumers aware about the fact that they are not just paying high prices for meat that is illegal but also consuming meat that can potentially give them cancer and other diseases is crucial. This can be done using artwork in fish markets, as is being done across fishing villages in Bali.
Brazilian Guitarfish are also rare in other parts of the world and attract divers to premium diving locations, fetching around $75 to $100 per dive, higher than most other locations where rare species like Guitarfish cannot be spotted. More efforts can be taken to set up dive centers in Brazil specifically dedicated towards Brazilian Guitarfish. This will not only be an attractive source of income for locals but also encourage conservation efforts. Tourism can be a major source of revenue for Brazilian fishermen and farmers, encouraging development and infrastructural promotion across major cities in Brazil, thereby creating a line of opportunities for Brazilian citizens across different industries.
With biodiversity as high as Brazil, more efforts should be taken to fuel tourism, interaction and awareness with Brazilian biodiversity, including rainforests and marine life. With the empowerment of local communities, we can together create a more sustainable future, inclusive towards all organisms.
To promote the cause of Brazilian Guitarfish conservation, I have started a movement called The Brazilian Guitarfish movement, operating via whatsapp group involving people across continents from various fields – climate researchers, marine conservationists, scuba divers, fishing industry experts, government authorities, public policy enthusiasts and tourism officials to curate solutions specific to conserving Brazilian Guitarfish. It’s a global initiative, with hands contributing from across the world to save Brazilian Guitarfish by empowering local fishers with diverse opportunities. There is always an alternate solution, sometimes all we need is a fresh approach along with fresh minds to find it. Fortunately, connecting globally in the digital world makes problem solving easier for all of us.
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