Clean Air for Blue Skies | Daily News


Clean Air for Blue Skies

The Coronavirus pandemic was an unprecedented catastrophe, but even the darkest of clouds have a silver lining. Much of the world was shut down for nearly four months from March this year to minimise the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This meant a drastic reduction of cars on the road, planes in the sky, ships at sea and silenced factory chimneys.

Indeed, the reduction of all forms of pollution was one of the hidden benefits of that months-long lockdown. To cite just one example, the Galle Face was no longer Green prior to March 2020. Yet a few months after the lockdown, it had turned into the verdant land it once was. All the trees in Colombo and elsewhere had a shade of green that had not been seen for some time.

Pollution is a major killer, far worse than even the Coronavirus. Around the world, nine out of every ten people breathe unclean air. Tiny, invisible particles of pollution penetrate deep into our lungs, bloodstream and bodies. These pollutants are responsible for about one-third of deaths from stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and lung cancer, as well as one quarter of deaths from heart attacks. Ground-level ozone, produced from the interaction of many different pollutants in sunlight, is also a cause of asthma and chronic respiratory illnesses.

These Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs) are among those pollutants most linked with both health effects and near-term warming of the planet. Some air pollutants, such as black carbon, methane and ground-level ozone, are also SLCPs responsible for a significant portion of air pollution-related deaths, as well as impacts on crops and hence, food security. They persist in the atmosphere for as little as a few days or up to a few decades, so reducing them can have an almost immediate health and climate benefits for those living in places where levels fall.

Air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally, with an estimated seven million premature deaths (2016) across the world attributed to indoor and outdoor air pollution. Particularly in developing countries, air pollution disproportionately affects women, children and the elderly, especially in low-income populations as they are often exposed to high levels of outdoor air pollution and indoor air pollution from cooking and heating with wood fuel and kerosene.

Air pollution is a global problem with far-reaching impacts owing to its spread over very long distances. In the absence of aggressive intervention, the number of premature deaths resulting from ambient air pollution is estimated to be on track to increase by more than 50 per cent by 2050.

Society bears a high cost of air pollution due to the negative impacts on the economy, work productivity, healthcare costs and tourism, among others. Thus the economic benefits of investing in air pollution control cannot be overestimated, and there is also an economic rationale to act. There are many cost-effective and existing solutions that address air pollution effectively.

It is in this context that the United Nations has declared today, September 7 as the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies. This is the first time that a Clean Air for Blue Skies Day is being celebrated around the world.

UN Member States including Sri Lanka have recognized the need to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination by 2030, as well as to reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management by 2030.

It is acknowledged that improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation and that climate change mitigation efforts can also improve air quality. All countries have committed to promoting sustainable development policies that support healthy air quality in the context of sustainable cities and human settlements. The reduction of air pollution is important to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we recover from the Coronavirus pandemic, the world needs to pay far greater attention to air pollution, which can also increase the risks associated with COVID-19. The UN has already started a campaign titled BreathLife to encourage countries and cities to make clean air a priority.

But emissions are already rising again, in some places surpassing pre-COVID levels. This is a dangerous trend. Reinforced environmental standards, policies and laws that prevent emissions of air pollutants are needed more than ever. Countries also need to discourage the use of fossil fuels, by investing in renewable energy sources and also by encouraging the use of fully electric vehicles, low-energy appliances and other such alternatives. Sri Lanka too must move in this direction without any delay in order to ensure that the air that will be breathed by future generations is pure and healthy.

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