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Plant Rights: A Neglected Regime

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Whenever an entity stood for itself to claim specific interest, it has faced humiliation at every possible level. Fight for rights never gone smoothly in history, for instance, women’s rights, slave’s rights, children’s rights, rights of a prisoner of war, etc. (Stone 1972: 451). Nobody thought in earlier times that even these could be considered as rights. The problem with our society is that we work for our self-interest. We exploit a thing up to a level that entity itself gets a realization that whatever is happening with them is not correct. Apart from self-interest, a perspective always plays a vital role in protecting the interest of the victim. The exploiters might never imagine that their actions are, in a way, harmful to the other being. Such exploitation can be rectified only with enlightenment and awareness among the general masses in time. It is to be understood that rights are always needed by the oppressed, not the oppressor. The journey of plant rights is no exception to this situation. When people come across this term, they laugh at the very first instance, considering it to be just a vague concept. This notion did not even find much discussion among the academician across the globe.

Furthermore, we disregard someone’s right, either knowingly or unknowingly. In the case of plant rights, it is mostly unknowingly since we do not consider plants to as being as they do not behave like humans or animals. Various studies suggest that plants own life, and they do respond to their surroundings in their way (Tandon 2019: 593). However, scientists are skeptical about the question of sentience in plants (Pelizzon and Gagliano 2015). Thus it makes the whole regime uncertain and necessary to be further analyzed with extra care.

The fact that plants cannot speak like other creatures does not make them less being. If they live and die like other entities on this planet, then we should reconsider our legal regime to address their concerns. Present laws for the protection of plants provide a limited scope in their application. Humans consider plants as a commodity and govern their conservation for the fulfillment of their own needs. This issue necessitates a plant-centric legal regime that should enable plants to possess their own legal identity and rights. There exist scientific limitations to provide evidence for this study. However, it is appropriate to develop an approach today, so to avoid any guilt in the future. 

NEED FOR PLANT RIGHTS

The underlying issue with the plants is that they are not granted rights per se. Any violation of plant rights cannot be brought before the courts with a reason that an injury has been inflicted upon plants. The actions against plants can be challenged in the court only when it affects the interests of other human beings related to such plants. If one cannot show the nexus between the plant and its owner or regulator, then the accused party shall not be held liable for its derogatory actions. This scenario depicts a problem where the interests of the plants are compromised, and those of humans prevail. 

The human-centric legal regime provides that nature should be conserved and protected to fulfill the needs of humans (Shastri 2013: 523). On the contrary, one should argue that several plant species are on the verge of extinction. It is necessary to develop a legal regime to prevent biodiversity loss and mitigate floral destruction (Marder 2013: 46-47).

Further, scientific studies are uncertain on the issue of pleasure and pain in plants (Calvo, Sahi and Trewavas 2017). Scientists have a difference in opinion on this issue. Where one set considers that plants lack a nervous system so they cannot respond to pain, the other argues that plants work differently from humans (Shepherd 2012). Daniel Chamovitz, in his 2012 book ‘What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses’ has called such a response of plants as “anoetic consciousness” – an ability to sense and react (Chamovitz 2012). However, if plants feel pain, for instance, then even plucking a leaf from the plant will constitute an illegal action that will not be preferred by the plant. Thus a need arose to determine the status of a silent entity to ensure global justice in the world.

PLANT RIGHTS: DEFINITION AND SCOPE

As per Christopher Stone in his book “Should Trees Have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”, the realm of legal rights entails three aspects for the right holder. Firstly, such rights-holder can take legal action at their will. Secondly, the injury needs to be identifiable by the court that is determining relief for such an entity. Thirdly, such assistance must be in the interest of rights-holder and benefit him (Stone 1972: 458).

The definition of plant rights can be read in similar lines of human rights. Those inherent rights that every plant possesses by being a plant are its plant rights. International human rights found its basis on the principles of universality, indivisibility, interdependence, and interrelatedness (Whelan 2010). These plant rights shall be based on the similar principles of human rights. Apart from the right to live and protect against their extinction, plant rights shall also include dignity and ethical considerations for the plant. The plants shall not be subjected to the arbitrary and unethical actions of a human.

The term ‘arbitrary’ and ‘unethical’ are subjective and open for debate. While determining the scope of these rights, some might consider even plucking of the flower to be arbitrary. In contrast, for the others, arbitrariness could include deforestation, destructive cultivation, affecting reproduction, and changing the genetic pattern of plants. Although this debate is unsettled, however, the plant’s life and their dignity need to be respected beyond doubt (Schulp 2019: 112).

NATURE OF PLANT RIGHTS

Both Christopher Stone and Peter Singer have argued that these rights should not be followed in their strict sense. Granting of rights did not mean equal treatment, rather equal consideration (Singer 1993). If we take plant rights up to the absolute sense, humans cannot even have food on their plates. In such a scenario, then will it means that we are compromising the right to life of humans. Also, before identifying their rights, it is to be determined that whether each plant on earth shall be given equal rights, or we could bring some differentiation or exemption while conferring rights to some of them. Thus a distinction between vegetable and ornamental plants could be observed while determining the nature and extent of plant rights. 

Science mentions that plants and animals have a similar origin (Meyerowitz 1999). Where we have a plethora of rights for one animal (humans), it is pertinent to have rights for plant kingdom that must be plant-centric instead of being human-centric. The new system should protect the interests of plants instead of humans.

WHAT ARE THE PRESENT LAWS FOR PLANT?

The present plant regime is regulated by numerous international instruments covering various aspects of plant protection. International Plant Protection Convention of 1951 prevents the entry and spreading of pests on plants. International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of 2004, also known as the International Seed Treaty aims for food security through conservation and sustainable use of plant’s genetic resources. It works in the collaboration of the Convention on Biological Diversity, another multilateral framework with a goal of conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components, and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1973 (CITES) is another multilateral arrangement to protect endangered plants and animals. International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, 1961 (UPOV) provides intellectual property rights to the generators of new varieties of plants.   

Though the present international law non-uniformly recognizes the intrinsic value of plants still, it does not accord any legal personality to plants. Notably, some of these instruments consider plants as an object and protect them, not for their conservation but to fulfill the requirements of human. The present situation could be understood similarly as to the rights of indigenous peoples that are considered necessary for their lives and livelihood against economic developments (Phillips 2015). Thus, plants should have a mechanism available to seek redressal for their grievances.    

In the 21st century, there were attempts to recognize this new realm of rights. On the 56th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Venezuelan government organizations and biological groups adopted the Universal Declaration of Plant Rights that consists of 22 principles. This declaration presents a very stringent protectionist view of plant rights. Also, the April 2008 Swiss Report “The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants” claims that since plants are alive, their morality must be respected. Further, they must not be considered as an object that can be owned by anyone (Willemsen 2008: 20).

States have reflected a commendable approach to provide legal rights to environmental entities. In the year 2008, Ecuador became the first state to adopt the rights of nature in its constitution (Revkin 2008). In 2010, Bolivia adopted legislation to grant legal standing to nature (Eckstein et al 2019: 805). New Zealand provided legal personality to Te Urewera national park in 2014, and later such status was also conferred to Mount Taranaki and Whanganui river to represent their interest through its guardians (Gleeson-White 2018). Similarly, in 2017, Uttarakhand High Court in India has conferred the status of ‘living entity’ upon river Ganga and Yamuna by making Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand, ‘Namami Gange‘ project director and Advocate General of the State as a legal parent to the river to represent their interest in the court (Salim v State of Uttarakhand and Others 2014). In the same year, Columbia has granted legal rights to the river Rio Atrato (Mount 2017). Thus, a similar approach is needed to be undertaken for plants as well where custodians are to be appointed those who may speak purely for the interest of plants before the court of law.

SUGGESTIONS

As we need a law to protect our liberties, provide remedies, and tackle all forms of oppression and discrimination. Similarly, plants also require the same for their existence. It is not a justified argument that since plants cannot speak so they cannot argue and plead in the court of law for their rights. Bentham advocates that the threshold to determine rights for a being should be their capacity to suffer (Singer 1993). Being a right-holder, plants can bring the claim for their interest. Moreover, such law much is made considering their interest at large. The emergence of a new right for an entity diminishes the existing realm of rights exercised by the others. Thus such necessary amendments need to be brought in our present legal system. Also, such plant rights shall be treated at par with human rights, if not superior.  

CONCLUSION

Both plants and animals require sunlight, air, water, wind, earth, for their survival and development. Studies say that plant does communicate with each other in different forms (Karban 2008). Plants like ‘Touch-me-not’ (mimosa pudica) (Kumar et al 2009) or sunflower (helianthus) (Vandenbrink et al 2014: 21) shows a response to the external stimuli. It is also said that plant never dies until affected by any human-made or natural factor (Trewavas 2016). Most importantly, the plant produces ‘seeds’ that signifies the essence of life in them. It can be said that they are not a machine that breathes carbon dioxide in the presence of the sun and vice-versa. On the contrary, they occupy an essential part of the environment, along with humans. Based on a few fundamental differences between plants and animals, for example, mobility, one cannot ignore equality between the components of the environment. 

The critical question is, ‘Whether plants feel pain?’ Up till now, no accurate answer has been obtained from studies. Different scientists have suggested various theories for it. The response to the issue of plant rights found its basis in a more nuanced scientific discovery. So now, another question could arise ‘What should be done until we get a certain answer?’ In the absence of such knowledge, should it be appropriate to leave the notion of plant rights aside to be decided by our future generation? Another preferable aspect could be to set up a framework for now identifying the fundamental issues of plant rights. Such a regime should come from the plant’s perspective as a matter of being a living entity. No matter, science may take the time to answer the plant mystery; however, as a human, it is our responsibility to show respect towards the plant and their dignity in our actions (Koechlin 2009). It requires sensitization among people that rather objectifying plants as a matter to fulfill their selfish needs.

A strict need for change in perception is required. Since all of our previous generations, including us, have grown up exploiting plants from ages directly or indirectly, consequently today we do not sense any form of injustice in it. We got very well accommodated in this regime, and it seems beyond imagination to think of any such idea as plant rights. This reform is challenging; however, not impossible. It would be an honor for our generation and a gift for future ones if we can correct something that has been wrongly followed by our forefathers, especially after industrialization. 

REFERENCES

  • Calvo, Paco, Sahi, Vaidurya Pratap and Trewavas, Anthony (2017): “Are plants sentient?,” Plant Cell & Environment, 6 September < https://doi.org/10.1111/pce.13065>.
  • Chamovitz, Daniel (2012): What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Eckstein, Gabriel et al (2019): “Conferring legal personality on the world’s rivers: A brief intellectual assessment,” Water International, Vol 44, No (6-7), pp 804-829.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization (1951):“International Plant Protection Convention,” UNTS, Vol 150, opened for signature 6 December, pp 67.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization (2001):  “International Treaty on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture,” UNTS, Vol 2400,opened for signature 3 November, pp 303.
  • Gleeson-White, Jane (2018): “It’s only natural: the push to give rivers, mountains and forests legal rights,” The Guardian, 1 April <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/apr/01/its-only-natural-the-push-to-give-rivers-mountains-and-forests-legal-rights>.
  • Government of Switzerland (1973): “Convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora,” UNTS, Vol 993, opened for signature 3 March, pp 243.
  • Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (1992): “Convention on Biological Diversity,” UNTS, Vol 1760, opened for signature 5 June, pp 79.
  • International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (1961): “International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants,” OJ, Vol L192 opened for signature 2 December, pp 64.
  • Karban, Richard (2008): “Plant behaviour and communication,” Ecology Letters, Vol 11, pp 727-739.
  • Koechlin, Florianne (2009): “The dignity of plants,” Plants Signaling & Behavior, Vol 4, No 1,pp 78-79 <https://doi.org/10.4161/psb.4.1.7315>.
  • Kumar, Nilesh et al (2009): “Mimosa pudica L. a sensitive plant,” International Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, Vol 1, No 1, pp 1-7.
  • Marder, Michael (2013): “Should plants have rights?,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, Vol 62, No 3, 46-50.
  • Meyerowitz, Elliot M (1999): “Plants, animals and the logic of development,” Trends in cell biology, Vol 9, No 12, pp M65-M68.
  • Mount, Nick (2017): “Can a river have legal rights? A different approach to protecting the environment,” Independent 13 October <https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/river-legal-rights-colombia-environment-pacific-rainforest-atrato-river-rio-quito-a7991061.html>.
  • National Assembly Legislative and Oversight Committee(2008): Republica del Ecuador Constitucion de 2008 (Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador 2008), chapter VII <http://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Ecuador/english08.html>.
  • Pelizzon, Alessandro and Gagliano, Monica (2015): “The Sentience of Plants: Animal Rights and Rights of Nature Intersecting?,” Australian Animal Protection Law Journal Vol 11, No 5, pp 5-13.
  • Phillips, James S (2015): “The rights of indigenous peoples under international law,” Global Bioethics, Vol 26, No 2, pp 120-127.
  • Revkin, Andrew C (2008): “Ecuador Constitution Grants Rights to Nature,” The New York Times, 29 September <https://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/29/ecuador-constitution-grants-nature-rights/>.
  • Salim v State of Uttarakhand and Others (2014): Writ Petition (PIL) No. 126 of 2014, Uttarakhand High Court.
  • Schulp, Jan A (2019): “Animal rights/Plants rights,” Research in Hospitality Management, Vol 9, No 2, pp 109-112.
  • Singer, Peter (1993): Practical Ethics United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shastri, Satish C (2013): “Environmental Ethics Anthropocentric to Eco-Centric Approach: A Paradigm Shift,” Journal of the Indian Law Institute, Vol 55, No 4, pp 522-530.
  • Shepherd, VA (2012): “At the roots of Plant Neurobiology: A brief history of the biophysical research of JC Bose,” Science and Culture, Vol 78, No (5/6), pp 196-210.
  • Stone, Christopher D (1972): “Should Trees Have Standing?: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” South California Law Review, Vol 45, pp 450-501.
  • Taiz, Lincoln et al (2019): “Plants Neither Possess nor Require Consciousness,” Trends in Plant Science, Vol 24, No 8, pp P677-687 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2019.05.008>.
  • Tandon, Prakash Narain (2019): “Jagdish Chandra Bose and Plant Neurobiology: Part I,” Indian Journal of Medical Research, Vol 149, No 5, pp 593-599.
  • Trewavas, Tony (2016): “Plant Intelligence: An overview,” BioScience, Vol 66, No 7, pp 542-551.
  • Vandenbrink, Joshua P et al (2014): “Turning heads: The biology of solar tracking in sunflower,” Plant Science, Vol 224, pp 20-26.
  • Venezuelan Association (2004): “Universal Declaration of Plant Rights,” 10 December <http://www.avepalmas.org/rights.htm>.
  • Willemsen, Ariane (2008), “The dignity of living beings with regard to plants,” Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology ECNH, pp 1-24.
  • Whelan, Daniel J (2010): Indivisible Human Rights: A History, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

LL.M., Ph.D. Scholar, Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi, India

Green Planet

Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion.  This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th.  The weather service  holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast.  In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.

While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour.  That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.

Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died.  Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton.  The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000.  However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely. 

Following Ida was hurricane Larry.  Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north.  These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists.  Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity.  They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013.  This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.

Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern.  This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes.  Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.

For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard.  Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland.  In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals. 

Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future.  The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals.  It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa.  Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean. 

The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.   

All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon. 

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Green Planet

Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.

The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.

A consequence of human influence

The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.

Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.

Arctic-Texas link

Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.

This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

COVID and the Cyclone

Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.

In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

Root causes

The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.

Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”

Solutions also linked

However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.

The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

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Green Planet

Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.

1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment

It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.

Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.

Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.

2) The main causes

 Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.

Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.

Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.

Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.

3) This is an urgent issue

 The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.

On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.

4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector

On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.

Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.

Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.

5)…and it is our responsibility, as well

At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.

Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.

The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.

How clean is your air?

You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.

The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

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