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20 June 2019 National academies call for immediate action on air pollution

Countries across the world must urgently adopt emissions controls and air monitoring systems for the worst pollutants, if they are to grapple with the growing problem of air pollution causing millions of deaths each year, five national academies have said.

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Countries across the world must urgently adopt emissions controls and air monitoring systems for the worst pollutants, if they are to grapple with the growing problem of air pollution causing millions of deaths each year, five national academies have said.

The Academies of Sciences and Medicine from South Africa, Brazil, Germany, and the United States issued a joint statement on 19 June, which they presented at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, calling for intensified funding and action under a new global compact to tackle air pollution.

“If we do not urgently address this global challenge, air pollution will continue to take a startling toll in terms of preventable disease, disability and death, as well as in avoidable costs of care,” said Marcia McNutt, president of the US National Academy of Sciences. “We need to act much more decisively. We need more public and private investments to tackle air pollution that match the scale of the problem.”

Air pollution causes some 7 million premature deaths every year, with vulnerable people such as women, children and the elderly most at risk. Scientific evidence shows that exposure to pollutants can lead to heart disease, asthma, diabetes, eczema, cancer and impact brain development in children.

Air pollution has also been linked to climate change. If we were to reduce short-lived pollutants such as methane, and black carbon, we could reduce global warming by up to 0.5°C over the next few decades, simultaneously avoiding 2.4 million premature deaths.

According to the academies, the biggest contributor to air pollution is fossil fuel and biomass combustion, used for power-generation, heat and cooking, transport and agriculture. Air pollution from fossil fuels is particularly adverse for humans as it contains large amounts of particulate matter, which enter the body and damage its organs.

With the global economic costs of disease caused by air pollution across 176 countries in 2015 estimated to be US$138 million, the academies call for this preventable problem to be addressed in tandem with climate change mitigation and sustainable development.

The academies recommend that all countries make air pollution reduction a priority by placing emission controls on industry and embracing clean fuels. Where possible, success stories from individual cities and countries should be shared and used as lessons for those grappling to improve air quality.

The global compact would encourage governments, businesses and citizens to increase investment for air pollution measures and work together to improve air quality around the world.

“Air pollution is not only harming our planet and contributing to climate change but cutting millions of lives short,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. “It is encouraging to see the global scientific community come together and call for urgent action on this truly global problem. It is time to place air pollution high on the political agenda.”

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