For an expanse of blue, with air so clean 

On International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, there is urgent need to address risks posed by pollution 

September 07, 2023 12:40 am | Updated 01:26 am IST

‘Acknowledging the existence of air pollution remains the primary step towards solutions’

‘Acknowledging the existence of air pollution remains the primary step towards solutions’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the earth has entered the era of global boiling. Scorching heatwaves, devastating floods and erratic weather patterns are stark reminders for an urgent need to address the triple-planetary crisis of biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution.

The world is not just grappling with climate change, but also with another silent killer — air pollution. Global health statistics reveal a disturbing scenario with lung cancer claiming 10 million deaths worldwide in 2020, as stated in the World Health Organization (WHO) factsheet published in 2023. This could soar by another 3.2 million by 2050 according to a report, ‘Mapping of global, regional and national incidence, mortality and mortality-to-incidence ratio of lung cancer in 2020 and 2050’, by the Indian National Institute of Health. South Asia, home to two billion people, is also home to nine of the world’s 10 most polluted cities, including Delhi, where the air quality continues to pose a perilous long-term threat putting its inhabitants at risk each day. While policy measures have led to statistical improvements in the Air Quality Index (AQI), the health risks associated with Delhi’s polluted air persist. Delhi is knocked to its knees every winter facing hazardous levels of air pollution.

Lung cancer, cardiovascular disorders, respiratory ailments, and mental health issues continue to destroy lives. Delhi’s air, a lethal mix of SO2 (sulphur dioxide) and NOX (nitrogen oxides), along with high particulate matter concentrations (2.5 or even 10µg/m3), carbon monoxide and ozone, deprive over 30 million residents of their human right to breathe clean air.

The air pollution toll is troublesome especially for immunocompromised individuals, pregnant women, children, and the elderly. As per a Lancet Report, 1.67 million pollution-related deaths were attributed to air pollution in India in 2019, accounting for a staggering 17.8% of the total deaths in the country.

Efforts to combat this crisis are already being made. State governments, research institutions, and NGOs are pioneering solutions such as the PUSA Decomposer, developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), employing biotechnology to address agricultural pollution. State-level policies such as GRAP 3 (Graded Rapid Action Plan), monitoring air quality in hotspots, and establishing Green War Rooms, have shown some potential. Many innovative startups involving young entrepreneurs are turning agricultural waste into valuable products.

Viable solutions

Acknowledging the existence of air pollution remains the primary step towards solutions. Next comes a debate on viable solutions and actions, many of which are already known. Eventually, these best practices need to be implemented. Without implementation, the best laid out plans will not lead to any improvement. Globally, cities such as Ljubljana (Slovenia), Accra (Ghana), Seville (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Medellin (Colombia), epitomise the power of prioritising human health and environmental sustainability. Car-free zones, green spaces, smart urban designs, electrified public transportation, nature-based solutions, and innovative biotechnology demonstrate positive results. China’s shift to clean energy and e-mobility after battling severe pollution, Indonesia’s project on ‘Carbon Efficient Farming’ assessing biomass to reduce CO2 emissions, Thailand and Vietnam undertaking measures to reduce open straw burning, are all gleams of hope.

UNESCO’s initiatives to combat air pollution include implementing an internal carbon tax on all flight tickets, and investing in emission reduction measures. The World Air Quality Project allows residents to make informed decisions by real time Air Quality data. In collaboration with UNEP, environmentally conscious practices have been introduced such as digital working via the ‘Virtual Meetings’ project. Clean-Air-For-Schools is spreading education among all for clean air. Other laudable activities include switching to electric vehicles, replacing lighting systems to greener LED arrangements, implementing solar powered offices, protecting historical sites by developing strategies to curb air pollution, and effective green solutions ( urban forests, parks, green corridors).

Youngsters around the world are taking charge of environmental advocacy, running marathons, and tracking real time data of air quality, creating environmental awareness. But the absence of a specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) for ‘Clean Air to Breathe’ indicates a lack of global attention.

However, in 2019, laying emphasis on the interest of the international community for clean air, and the need to improve air quality, the UN General Assembly decided to designate September 7 as the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies. Nevertheless, clean air remains a long stride in many mega-cities and other places. We hope that a concerted action to systematically improve the air quality including in Delhi will receive priority attention. The problem has been caused by people, so it should be people who will find and apply solutions, supported by innovative adequate air quality policies and action plans. As we inhale the consequences of our actions, the ultimate question beckons: are we the torchbearers of change for the future of our planet or will we be silent bystanders who let pollution script a tragic ending?

Benno Böer is the Chief of the Natural Sciences Unit, UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Neha Midha is the National Programme Officer, UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office for Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Srishti Kumar is a UNESCO Natural Sciences Intern. UNESCO is a member of Team UN in India, together helping deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals

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