With extreme air pollution events on the rise, global efforts to reduce pollution and its effects will receive an advocacy boost when, for the first time ever, the world marks the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies on 7 September.
Adopted by a UN General Assembly Resolution in 2019, the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies – whose observance is facilitated by the UN Environment Progamme (UNEP) – stresses the importance of and urgent need to raise public awareness at all levels and to promote and facilitate actions to improve air quality. The Republic of Korea led global efforts to create this new International Day of Clean Air for blue skies and will host an event to start celebrations.
In many parts of the world extreme air pollution events have become a seasonal phenomenon, almost as reliable as the monsoon or autumn foliage. In early November, New Delhi and other cities in northern India experienced levels of air pollution that cancelled flights and kept people masked and indoors. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and the Thai capital, Bangkok, these events occur in January and February. In California and Australia, summer wildfires are being turbocharged by climate change, destroying habitat, and covering vast areas in a choking haze.
These are examples of the extreme impacts of a crisis that affects us all – air pollution affects human, animal and planetary health, with an estimated 7 million people dying prematurely from diseases caused by air pollution. Air pollution is the greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally. Each year. Many millions more living with these diseases suffer a substantial amount of disability.
“Around the world, nine out of every ten people breathe unclean air,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message for the Day. “The extent of this challenge requires decisive action on the part of governments, businesses and communities to end reliance on fossil fuels in favour of clean affordable renewable energy. On the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, let us commit to no new coal for cleaner, greener economies and better health for all.”
Air pollution not only threatens the health of people but also has negative impacts on plants and ecosystems. Ozone air pollution alone is responsible for 52 million tons of global crop losses annually. Air pollution also drives the climate crisis with many greenhouse gases and air pollutants coming from the same sources, meaning air pollution is not only bad human for health and quality of life today, but also makes the future less safe for coming generations.
His Excellency Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea, said: “I am very pleased to celebrate the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, which was adopted at the UN General Assembly last year. I hope this event would help enhance global public awareness of the transboundary air pollution and provides an important milestone in the global efforts to harness solution-based actions for cleaner air.”
The good news is there are cost-effective, practical solutions available today to reduce air pollution. Air pollution does not respect international borders and countries must work together to prioritise air pollution reduction measures and invest in clean air solutions; research shows that renewable energy is more cost-effective than ever.
The International Day of Clean Air for blue skies calls for increased international cooperation at the global, regional and sub-regional levels. It provides a provide a platform for strengthening global solidarity as well as political momentum for action against air pollution and climate change, including actions like the increased collection of air quality data, carrying out joint research, developing new technologies and sharing best practices.
“Air pollution is a huge environmental risk to human health. It has a disproportionate impact on the poor. The economic costs are mounting – whether through healthcare bills, lost productivity, reduced crop yields or the eroded competitiveness of cities,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “COVID-19 lockdowns have shown that a cleaner sky is possible. That people are willing to listen to science. That we can act quickly to protect human health. We must take similar urgent action to lift the smog of air pollution. If we do, we can save millions of lives and billions of dollars each year.”
“In the face of global challenges posed by air pollution, climate change, social and economic inequalities, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have a chance to build back better,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. “Many governments have already taken steps to align health, air pollution and climate policies. Now is the time to rethink how we organize our societies, our cities, our transportation, and how we cook and heat our homes – for health’s sake.”
The first International Day of Clean Air and blue skies will be marked by a number of events around the world, including the official opening, which will be officiated by President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea; the International Forum of Clean Air for blue skies, hosted by Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary-General and current Chairman of Korea’s National Council on Climate and Air Quality and a UNEP event led by Executive Director Inger Andersen, who will be joined by Korea’s Minister for Environment, Cho Myung-Rae and WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. More details on these and more events around the world here.
COVID-19 can act as a jump-start for environmental change
The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing young people around the world into the fight against climate change, as witnessed this week during the Youth Environment Assembly.
The gathering, which is being held virtually, as part of the UN Environment Assembly, is the planet’s largest youth-led environmental event. It has zeroed in on climate change, which participants described as a dire threat to the planet.
This year’s Youth Environment Assembly saw the release of UNEP’s GEO-6 for Youth – a report targeted at 15-24-year-olds, written with the intention of translating high-level scientific messages into a language that is accessible and actionable. This age group makes up one-sixth of the world’s population and is crucial in the fight against climate change.
“(COVID-19) can act as a jump-start for environmental change,” said Rohan Bhargava, 27, a climate change expert and an author of the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook 6 for Youth report (GEO-6 for Youth). “We can’t ignore the challenges anymore.”
But the global fight against COVID-19, and the trillions of dollars being devoted to pandemic recovery, is creating hope that the world can finally make progress on climate change.
“COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can implement change when we need to,” said Maria Jesus Iraola, 27, an environmental expert, researcher and also a coordinating lead author of the GEO-6 for Youth report. “We need to bring this same urgency to the environment.”
That message appears to be sinking in. The People’s Climate Vote, a United Nations Development Programme survey, showed that two-thirds of those polled thought the world now faced a “global emergency.” The poll is the largest environmental survey ever and involved 1.2 million people, many of them youth, across 50 countries.
Young activists, assemble
This year’s Youth Environment Assembly provided a barometer of what young people think about climate change and the message is undeniably clear: “We need to build back better, we need to be more innovative and we need to move quickly,” said Iraola.
“Meaningful youth engagement has to be mainstreamed across environmental governance,” said Christianne Zakour, a representative from UNEP’s Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY), “Children and youth are not just your social media retweets or ornaments to tick the box – it is a generation that needs to be empowered.”
GEO-6 for Youth was due to be released in March 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. Much of what was written has since been reinforced by COVID-19, said Iraola.
“We suggested working from home before COVID-19 as a way to cut emissions,” she said. “We didn’t change the core messages of the report, COVID-19 just highlighted and reinforced them. They are more relevant and relatable now.”
The authors of GEO-6 for Youth hope some of the lessons learnt during COVID-19 can be transplanted into the fight against climate change.
“COVID-19 has shown how quickly we can implement change when we need to, we need to bring this same urgency to the environment,” Iraola said.
“The future is now. We, as youth, face these environmental problems daily,” said Bhargava.
“The talk used to be hypothetical, but now we can’t ignore the challenges, it’s no longer hypothetical but very real.”
Below are some insights from young people who participated in the event:
“As protectors of Planet Earth, we the youth call for safe spaces and enabling platforms where we can continue to play meaningful roles as advocates in shaping the future we want.” – John Aggrey, Ghana.
“Youth are playing a catalytic role at local to global level, driving for climate action. We call for youth-friendly and inclusive policies which better capture and nurture our roles as positive agents of change. We should be better recognized, promoted and supported.” – Kudzanai Chimhanda, Zimbabwe.
“In regard to environmental stewardship, youth community organisers have done great work over the last several years. Youth are not just the leaders of tomorrow, but they are also the leaders of today.” Rohan Arora, United States.
In the textile industry, old is increasingly becoming new
A clothing company in the Philippines that uses scrap material to make shoes. A technology startup in Ireland that allows strangers to swap little-used clothes. And a fashion house in Brazil that produces zero waste and repurposes old clothes into new ones.
These are three of a growing number of companies that are bucking an environmentally destructive trend towards fast fashion.
The textile industry, say observers, has long been primed for a circular makeover.
Amid rapacious demand for cheap, on-trend clothing, it has become a major driver of climate change: some sources say that the textile sector accounts for about 8 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Producing one kilogram of textiles also uses over half a kilogram of chemicals, and consumes huge quantities of fresh water.
“The fashion industry has long been criticized for the impact it has on the environment,” said Elisa Tonda, Head of Consumption and Production Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Much of that criticism is justified. But at the same time, there is a lot of innovation happening right now that bodes well for the future.”
Tonda made the comments ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), where some discussions focused on what’s known as the circular economy, that prizes reusing things – from beverage bottles to camisoles – instead of throwing them away.
UNEA will also see the launch of a Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency, established by UNEP, the European Commission and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The alliance builds on existing regional initiatives (such as the African Circular Economy Alliance) to speed up transition to a global circular economy through more efficient, equitable use of resources. It also promotes sustainable consumption, production and industrialization.
A good time for change
The economic recovery from COVID-19 offers a rare opportunity to dramatically shift the trajectory of many industries, including textiles.
“Tying financial stimulus packages to actions that align with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement will lock in long-term resource efficiency and decouple economic growth from environmental degradation,” said Archana Datta, a Project Coordinator for India, at the SWITCH-Asia initiative, which promotes sustainable production and consumption.
Circularity and sustainability also make economic sense for businesses, data suggests. Even before Covid-19, just 60 per cent of garments were sold at full price, creating billions of dollars of lost revenues. Smart product design has the potential to eliminate production waste and reduce pollution across the processing phase, helping businesses save money.
Circularity would also be good for the climate. Switching to more circular business models, including fashion rentals, re-commerce, repair and refurbishment, could help the industry cut around 143 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2030.
A green recovery
A UNEP study recently found that in order to make the fashion industry more sustainable, there needs to be stronger “governance” of the sector, more financing for planet-friendly innovations and a concerted effort to change the consumption habits of consumers.
Several promising initiatives are already helping with the latter. Through a smartphone app, Ireland-based Nuw allows users to swap rarely worn clothes instead of tossing them away. In the Philippines, apparel company Phinix collects waste textiles and transforms them into footwear and bags. Their products have just 10 per cent of the carbon footprint of regular apparel. Finally, by upcycling and avoiding plastic packaging, among other things, Brazil fashion house Refazenda has eliminated its solid waste.
UNEP is creating a roadmap to help other textile companies follow the lead of those businesses. Set to be released in June 2021, it will showcase concrete actions that textile companies can adopt to green their business.
Kenya emerges as leader on plastic pollution
Kenya is emerging as a leader in the fight against plastic pollution and is among the first countries in East Africa to limit single-use plastics and sign the Clean Seas initiative to rid waterways of plastic waste.
Juliette Biao, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Director for Africa lauded the country for banning plastic bottles, cups and cutlery in its national parks last year, a move that followed a country-wide prohibition on plastic bags. She also called the country’s efforts to stem the flow of plastic into its waterways an important step in reducing marine litter.
“Kenya has invested heavily in both policies and law enforcement to win the fight against plastic pollution. The result of this investment is today boosting Kenya’s environmental stewardship in Africa and the world,” said Biao.
Her comments came during the virtual convening of the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly, the planet’s top environmental decision-making body. Every two years, the assembly unites the UN’s 193 Member States, policy-makers, civil society, scientists and the private sector to take action on urgent environmental issues. The virtual session in February 2021 will be followed by an in-person meeting in Nairobi in 2022.
Like many countries, Kenya has long struggled with plastic waste, which dots its Indian Ocean coast and often abounds in its lakes. In Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city with some 2 million residents, 3.7 kilos of plastic per capita leach into bodies of water annually.
Turning the tide
Working closely with communities and in partnership with the private sector as well as UNEP, Kenya’s national and devolved county-level governments are establishing a plastic waste management programme – one that could be scaled and replicated across the East African community and beyond.
Kenya grabbed headlines in 2017 when it banned single-use plastic bags. That was preceded by the country’s decision to sign on to the Clean Seas initiative, making it one of the first African nations to commit to limiting plastic in its waterways.
And, as of June 2020, visitors to Kenya’s national parks, beaches, forests and conservation areas are no longer able to carry plastic water bottles, cups, disposable plates, cutlery, or straws into protected areas.
It’s not just its fight against plastic that makes Kenya a green pioneer: the country was also an early adopter of the Green University Initiative. For over a decade, universities around the country have focused on greening their campuses, while enhancing student engagement and learning. Higher education offerings in environmental science, management and policy are also available at both public and private institutions.
The green dividend
By expanding its efforts to green its economy, Kenya could use sustainability to power economic growth, create jobs and lift people out of poverty.
“Since the commencement of our engagement with polythene bags and PET bottles, Kenya has witnessed increased investment in plastic recycling and several new players have come onboard. We have upscaled environmental awareness on plastic pollution together with our partners and are proud of initiatives such as the FlipFlopi, which has demonstrated successful recycling of plastics,” said Chris Kiptoo, Principal Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Kenya at the UN Environment Assembly.
Two of the country’s largest industries – agriculture and tourism – could also provide sources of environmental innovation and job creation.
Sea of economic opportunity
Such ambition extends beyond the country’s shores and back into the waters, as the upcoming second expedition by the recycled plastic lumber dhow the Flipflopi aims to demonstrate. Kenya also has an opportunity to drive growth by creating a sustainable blue economy, using its maritime resources to create jobs and spur economic growth while ensuring the health of the ocean ecosystem.
Addressing Africa’s first Sustainable Blue Economy conference in Nairobi in 2018, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta committed to putting in place policies that harness the economic potential of Kenya’s oceans and coastline. He called for strong action to reduce the waste and plastic pollution that threaten food security, public health, and marine life.
According to a 2018 policy brief published by the United Nations Development Programme, the Western Indian Ocean, covering the Kenyan coastline and most shorelines of East Africa, generates more than US$22 billion annually in goods and services, including fisheries, maritime transport, trade, tourism and waste management. Kenya’s economic share was estimated at $4.4 billion annually.
With the right policies, especially those that invest in sustainable infrastructure and protecting ecosystems along its maritime territory (which stretches nearly 230,000 square kilometres); Kenya could boost the value of its blue economy.
“As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN Environment Programme, I encourage Kenya as host of the global leading environmental authority to continue showing the world that environmental stewardship should be demonstrated through actions and not words,” said Biao.
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