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Seven things you should know about household air pollution

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Every year, nearly 4 million people die prematurely from indoor air pollution. Many succumb to diseases linked to inhaling smoke from kerosene, wood and charcoal fires, which are commonly used in the developing world for cooking and heating.

To help raise awareness about indoor air pollution, the United Nations launched last year the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. With this year’s event just around the corner, here are seven things you should know about household air pollutants.

1. They are terrible for human health

Tens of millions of people become sick, injured, or burnt from using fuel in their living spaces. Household air pollution causes stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and other deadly ailments.

The burning of unclean fuels, like coal, releases large quantities of dangerous pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter (PM).  In households with open burning and unvented solid fuel stoves, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) can exceed WHO-recommended levels by up to 100 times.

And the impact of indoor air pollution extends beyond the home, contributing to almost 500,000 of the premature deaths attributed to outdoor air pollution every year.

2. Dirty household fuels are disastrous for the environment

Household combustion is the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide and a major component of particulate matter. It also produces an estimated quarter of all black carbon, or soot emissions, which, according to the World Health Organization, have a per-unit warming capacity 460 – 1,500 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

When they interact with outdoor air pollutants, household combustion emissions contribute to the formation of ground level ozone – a short-lived climate pollutant that decreases crop yields and affects local weather patterns.

3. Affordable, reliable energy can help reduce indoor air pollution

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 envisages “access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for all by 2030.” The global adoption of clean household energy – including low-emission stoves, heating and lighting – could save millions of lives.

It would also help to reduce biodiversity loss caused by using wood for fuel, decelerate forest degradation, reduce carbon dioxideemissions from biomass, and lower emissions of black carbon, methane and carbon monoxide. In fact, since black carbon particles only remain in the air for a week or less (versus carbon dioxide, which can remain for more than a century) reducing their emission is an important way to decelerate climate change in the near-term.

To date, however, there remains a dearth of access to affordable, clean energy options.

4. Household air pollution entrenches poverty and inequality

In more than 155 countries, a healthy environment is recognized as a constitutional right. Obligations related to clean air are implicit in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The 2030 Agenda is based on the premise that no one should be left behind.

Nonetheless, there are still 3 billion people using unsafe fuels in their homes; and they are typically among the world’s poorest.

Access to clean cooking fuels and technologies is increasing by just 1 per cent a year.

5. Women and girls suffer most from indoor air pollution

Those who spend more time indoors, including women and children, are disproportionately affected by household air pollution. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to kerosene cooking and lighting explosions. And close to half of all pneumonia deaths among children under five are a consequence of the soot they inhale at home.

Those who rely on unclean fuels are both the most vulnerable to noncommunicable diseases and the least able to cover the costs of sickness, associated healthcare costs, and lost work hours.

Exposure to pollutants can also affect the brain, causing developmental delays, behavioural problems, and even lower IQ in children.

According to one World Health Organization analysis, girls in households that rely on unclean fuels lose 15 to 30 hours each week gathering wood or water – meaning that they are disadvantaged both in comparison to households that have access to clean fuels, as well as their male counterparts.

6. Countries can cut pollution-related deaths through investments and legislation

Household air pollution can be reduced by phasing out the use of unprocessed coal and kerosene in homes; adopting cleaner fuels, like biogas, ethanol and liquified petroleum gas; moving toward renewable energy sources wherever possible; developing safe, efficient household technologies; and ensuring proper ventilation.

Increasing access to clean household fuels and technology is an effective way to reduce poverty, sickness and death, particularly in developing countries and among vulnerable groups. The uptake of clean household fuels and new technology can also slow forest degradation and loss of habitat while combating climate change.

7. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)  is devoted to reducing air pollution

The UNEP-hosted  Climate and Clean Air Coalition prioritizes the adoption of clean household fuels and technologies as a way to mitigate short-lived climate pollutants, improve air quality, and realize environmental, social and economic benefits.

The coalition’s Household Energy Initiative raises awareness about the relationship between climate change; advocates for donor support to clean, low-energy cooking, heating, and lighting activities; and promotes solutions that reduce black carbon and other emissions.

UN Environment

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Environment

‘No time to lose’ curbing greenhouse gases

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Last year, heat-trapping greenhouse gases reached a new record, surging above the planet’s 2011-2020 average, and has continued in 2021, according to a new report published on Monday by the UN weather agency.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Greenhouse Gas Bulletin contains a “stark, scientific message” for climate change negotiations at the upcoming UN climate conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, said Petteri Taalas, head of the UN agency.

“At the current rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, we will see a temperature increase by the end of this century far in excess of the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”, he explained. “We are way off track.”

Emissions rising

Concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2020 was 149 per cent above the pre-industrial level; methane, 262 per cent; and nitrous oxide, 123 per cent, compared to the point when human activitity began to be a destabilizing factor.

And although the coronavirus-driven economic slowdown sparked a temporary decline in new emissions, it has had no discernible impact on the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases or their growth rates.

As emissions continue, so too will rising global temperatures, the report maintained.

Moreover, given the long life of CO2, the current temperature level will persist for decades, even if emissions are rapidly reduced to net zero.

From intense heat and rainfall to sea-level rise and ocean acidification, rising temperatures will be accompanied by more weather extremes – all with far-reaching socioeconomic impacts.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was three to five million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now”, stated the WMO chief. “But there weren’t 7.8 billion people then”, he reminded.

Lingering CO2

Roughly half of today’s human-emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere and the other half is absorbed by oceans and land ecosystems, the Bulletin flagged.

At the same time, the capacity of land ecosystems and oceans to absorb emissions may become a less effective buffer against temperature increases in the future.

Meanwhile, many countries are currently setting carbon neutral targets amidst the hope that COP26 will see a dramatic increase in commitments.

“We need to transform our commitment into action that will have an impact of the gases that drive climate change. We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life”, said the WMO official. 

The needed changes are economically affordable and technically possible“, he assured. “There is no time to lose”.

Battling emissions

CO2 is the single most important greenhouse gas and has “major negative repercussions for our daily lives and well-being, for the state of our planet and for the future of our children and grandchildren”, argued the WMO chief.

Carbon sinks are vital regulators of climate change because they remove one-quarter of the CO2 that humans release into the atmosphere.

Nitrous Oxide is both a powerful greenhouse gas and ozone depleting chemical that is emitted into the atmosphere from both natural and anthropogenic sources, including oceans, soils, biomass burning, fertilizer use and various industrial processes.

Multiple co-benefits of reducing methane, whose gas remains in the atmosphere for about a decade, could support the Paris Agreement and help to reach many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), said the Bulletin.

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Environment

Landmark decision gives legal teeth to protect environmental defenders

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A 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said on Friday.

“I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

The agreement will delegate setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body.

As the first ever internationally-agreed tool to safeguard environmental defenders, it marks an important step in upholding the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – as recognized by the Human Rights Council earlier this month

“Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights.

Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical”, spelled out the UN chief. 

A protective eye

The agreement to establish the mechanism was adopted on Thursday by the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention. 

“This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova.

“It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

Vital defence

Whether it is groups protesting the construction of a dangerous dam or individuals speaking out against harmful agricultural practices in their local community, these activists are vital to environmental preservation across the globe, said the UNECE.

The Aarhus Convention ensures that those exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement.

As such, the mechanism will establish a Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention.  

As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted.   

Defenders targeted

Although it is crucial for environmental defenders to confidently exercise their rights, cases have been reported in which instead, they face being fired, heavy fines, criminalization, detention, violence, and even death. 

Moreover, incidents of harassment and violence against environmental defenders are far from uncommon

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

In contrast to current existing initiatives, which mainly rely on applying political pressure through the media, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism will be built on a binding legal framework, giving it much greater powers to act.

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Environment

Plastic pollution on course to double by 2030

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Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030, according to an assessment released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The report highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic, is crucial to addressing the global pollution crisis overall.  

To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction. 

Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea. 

Solutions to hand 

But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there, and urgent action is taken. 

The document is being released 10 days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are a climate problem as well.  

For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the​​ amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals. 

Recycling not enough 

Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. 

They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics. 

The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions. 

Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption, and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain. 

It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.  

Making the case for change 

For the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, this assessment “provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans, from source to sea.” 

She said that a major concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems. 

“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.  

Growing problem 

Currently, plastic accounts for 85 per cent of all marine litter. 

By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline. 

Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals; faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation and suffocation. 

The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air. 

In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer. 

Economy 

According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy. 

Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year, during 2018. 

By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal. 

The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation. 

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