If pollution was simply about having to put up with a bad odour or some unsightly smog, it could be considered tolerable. The sad fact, however, is that it’s also sending millions to an early grave.
Around the world, hundreds of millions of people live in areas with dirty air and are vulnerable to serious health problems. Children are growing up with asthma, permanent coughs and stunted growth. In New Delhi, doctors say many of their patients display the symptoms of hardened, lifelong tobacco users. Air pollution, something that cities around the world live with on a daily basis, is the single biggest environmental health risk of our time, and is linked to one out of every nine deaths worldwide.
It’s also about the state of our water and soil. The Caribbean, which conjures up images of turquoise waters and pristine corals, is considered one of the most plastic-contaminated seas in the world. Plastic waste is even washing up on beaches in the Arctic, with lumps of polystyrene floating alongside icebergs. Pesticides have been linked to the decimation of crucial pollinators across Europe, while dangerous chemicals such as mercury threaten fragile tropical ecosystems.
Pollution also creates disproportionate burdens. It has a bigger impact on the poor and the vulnerable such as the elderly, children and the disabled. Wherever land is scarce, it is invariably the poor who end up living near toxic dumpsites, abandoned factories and smog-choked highways. The flipside is that citizens are more aware than ever before of how pollution affects their lives, their livelihoods and the future prospects for their children, and they are demanding action.
All this explains why the third session of the United Nations Environment Assembly from 4-6 December in Nairobi, has the theme: “Towards a pollution-free planet”. It may sound like a lofty goal but, with the right tools and political will, it is achievable.
For too long, the relationship between prosperity and environment has been seen as a trade-off. Tackling pollution was considered an unwelcome cost on industry and a handicap to economic growth.
Global trends are demonstrating that this is no longer the case. It’s now clear that sustainable development is the only form of development that makes sense. The drive towards a pollution-free planet provides an opportunity to innovate and create lasting business models.
The energy revolution currently unfolding is a game changer, as is the increased mobilization around climate. The rapidly falling cost of energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, means that the countries leading the shift away from fossil fuels will reap the greatest benefits to their economies, as well as their environments.
With the transition to green and sustainable development under way, we need to focus on how to intensify and accelerate these trends in order to protect the environment, combat climate change and curb pollution. As I see it, there are five critical pieces to this puzzle:
We need political leadership and partnerships. A global compact on pollution would ensure sustained engagement at the highest level and make prevention a priority for all. It would also encourage policymakers and other key partners, including the private sector, to integrate prevention into national and local planning, development processes, and business and finance strategies.
We need the right policies. Environmental governance needs to be strengthened – with targeted action on “hard-hitting” pollutants through risk assessments and better implementation of legislation, including multilateral environmental agreements, and other measures.
We need a new approach to managing our lives and economies. That means promoting sustainable consumption and production through improved resource efficiency and lifestyle changes, and prioritizing waste reduction and management.
We need to invest big. Mobilizing finance for low-carbon opportunities and cleaner production and consumption will drive innovation and help counter pollution. More funding is also needed for research, pollution monitoring, infrastructure, management and control.
And finally, we need advocacy for action. Citizens need to be informed and inspired to reduce their own pollution footprint and advocate for bold pollution-beating commitments from the public and private sectors.
The UN Environment Assembly is a golden opportunity for key actors – from scientists and policymakers to civil society groups and business leaders – to advance the forward-thinking solutions to pollution that we all need. That would be an important initial stride along the road toward a pollution-free planet.