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Number of countries tackling air pollution on the rise, but not enough: study

08 September 2021 Keiron Greenhalgh

The number of countries rolling out programs to combat air pollution increased over the past five years, but more is still required as pollution levels are largely unchanged, a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found.

The study, released to coincide with UNEP's second International Day of Clean Air, showed 95 countries now have programs promoting clean cooking and heating, an increase of 13 nations compared with a preceding study in 2016, preventing pollution including soot.

And though burning of solid waste remains a widespread phenomenon, 26 more countries now strictly regulate it, including landfill gas capture, improved collection, the separation of waste, and sound disposal methods, the study found. Burning waste releases black carbon and methane mostly.

The increase in countries promoting cleaner fuel cooking and heating has led to lower rates of disease caused by household air pollution, mostly in South and East Asia and the Pacific, UNEP said in a statement released alongside the report.

Air pollution's human capital impact on GDP has been calculated at 1.36% in India, 1.19% in Rwanda, 1.16% in Ethiopia, and 0.5% in Ghana, UNEP Senior Economic Advisor Pushpam Kumar said during a press conference on the report. Those figures do not include public health expenditures, Kumar added.

Human capital involves the knowledge, skills, and health that people accumulate throughout their lives, according to the World Bank.

Investing in people through nutrition, health care, quality education, jobs, and skills helps develop human capital, and is key to ending extreme poverty and creating more inclusive societies, it added.

Action on air pollution therefore provides a positive return on investment and can boost the economy, said Kumar.

India—with the world's second largest population, many of them poor—is working on the impact outdoor and indoor air pollution can have, a senior government official said earlier this year at an IHS Markit conference.

LPG is set to be the primary solution to India's indoor air pollution problem in the short term, and expanding the natural gas pipeline network is a key longer-term solution, Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas and Minister of Steel, said during IHS Markit's Fourth Annual India Energy Forum by CERAWeek in January.

"We have about 280 million LPG consumers, and 80 million of them are 'the poorest of the poor,'" a group that the government has targeted for free LPG distribution, Pradhan told the forum. During the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns in spring 2020, he said the ministry was distributing 5 million cylinders of LPG per day.

Ghana's West African neighbor Nigeria—the world's seventh most populous nation and Africa's top-ranked country—is doing the same.

To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, parties should enable the fuel poor to improve their lives by obtaining access to electricity that isn't created by burning petroleum products and food without inhaling emissions from burning firewood indoors, Nigerian Vice President Oluyemi Osinbajo told the Columbia Global Energy Summit 18 May. The policy of leaving no-one behind is a Paris Agreement goal, he added.

Air pollution relatively unchanged

But, overall, air pollution is relatively unchanged since the prior report UNEP produced, and in some places has worsened, report co-author Gary Kleiman said during the webcast briefing. "The bottom line is that while progress is being made, it needs more support," the Orbis Air founder said.

There is no straightforward answer on how successful humankind has been in tackling air pollution, said Kleiman. "You can't manage what you can't measure," he said. There has been an increase in the activity on the part of governments, Kleinman said, but the data for many countries is missing.

Among the 124 countries with air quality standards, only 57 continuously monitor air quality, while 104 countries have no monitoring infrastructure in place, the UNEP study Kleinman co-authored found.

Since the last assessment, 17 more countries have adopted legal instruments containing ambient air quality standards, the study found. Much of this progress was in Africa and Latin America, but some Eastern European countries have also added a standard for at least one pollutant, it added.

More than 95% of countries with ambient air quality standards are regulating particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, while 90% are regulating particulate matter, the study showed.

However, only 9% of these adhere to the limits established by World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, according to the report.

The WHO launched its revised air quality guidelines on 22 September.

The next UNEP study on air pollution is expected to be released in 2024.

More investment needed

UNEP called on countries to incorporate investments in air pollution clean-up into their post-COVID-19 recovery plans in the report.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres added his backing to the call. "Like many societal ills, air pollution reflects global inequalities," he said. "Poverty forces people to live close to sources of pollution, like factories and highways, and burn solid fuels or kerosene for cooking, heating, and lighting."

"The pollution that is damaging our health is also driving the climate crisis. I call on all countries to do more to improve air quality, invest in renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, phase out coal, and transition to zero-emission vehicles," he added.

These latest funding pleas come after a study released 10 March showed governments are missing their chance to reduce GHG emissions at the same time as fighting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and righting inequity with unprecedented stimulus funding.

The study, Are We Building Back Better? Evidence from 2020 and Pathways for Inclusive Green Recovery Spending, called for more sustainability in government investment and a greater focus on inequality in efforts to stimulate growth following the damage caused by the pandemic. The report was based on data collected by Oxford University's Economic Recovery Project and UNEP.

Overall rescue and recovery spending to combat the health crisis totaled $14.6 trillion, but only 18.1% or $341 billion was green recovery spending that could help reduce GHG emissions, according to the report's lead author, Brian O'Callaghan, lead researcher at the Economic Recovery Project.

Studies show that well-designed green spending can counter the environmental crises of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, while also delivering significant social benefits, according to the report.

Activist groups call for COP26 postponement

Developing nations are going to be dealt another blow if the developed world, and the UK government in particular, fail to see how the post-pandemic world is set to deprive poorer nations of a fair say in November's key UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations, activists say.

As a result, the long-awaited talks should be postponed until the UK government, COP26's host, works out a way to ensure a "safe, equitable and inclusive summit," the Climate Action Network (CAN), which represents over 1,500 civil society groups from 130 countries, said 7 September.

"The COP presidency has failed to guarantee the safe and equitable participation of COP26 delegates, especially people coming from countries that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and the climate crisis," Greenpeace International Senior Political Lead Juan Pablo Osornio said in a statement supporting the CAN stance.

"COP26 needs to be fair and accessible to deliver global climate justice. Expecting already disadvantaged people to attend without access to vaccines, healthcare, and financial support to overcome the risks of participation, is not only unfair but prohibitive," Osornio added.

Posted 08 September 2021 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Senior Editor


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