Nine out of 10 people on the planet breathe dangerous air
By Dr Majwala Meaud Major
Every June 5 is World Environment Day, the theme for 2019, “Beat Air Pollution,” is a call to action call to combat this global crisis.
It invites us all to consider how we can change our everyday lives to reduce the amount of air pollution we produce and thwart its contribution to global warming and its effects on our own health.
Understanding the different types of pollution, and how it affects our health and environment will help us take steps towards improving the air around us. Often you can’t even see it, but air pollution is everywhere. We can't stop breathing, but we can do something about the quality of our air.
At the household level, the main source of household air pollution is the indoor burning of fossil fuels, wood and other biomass-based fuels to cook, heat and light homes. Around 3.8 million premature deaths are caused by indoor air pollution each year, the vast majority of them in the developing world.
The industrialisation we are advocating for the increase in jobs for the many jobless young generations, especially energy production is a leading source of air pollution in many countries. Coal-burning power plants are a major contributor, while diesel generators are a growing concern in off-grid areas. We all move but transport disturbs our air. The global transport sector accounts for almost one-quarter of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions and this proportion is rising. Transport emissions have been linked to nearly 400,000 premature deaths.
Agriculture which employs many in Africa, there are two major sources of air pollution from agriculture; livestock, which produces methane and ammonia, and the burning of agricultural waste.
Open waste burning and organic waste in landfills release harmful dioxins, furans, methane, and black carbon into the atmosphere. Globally, an estimated 40 percent of waste is openly burned. Not all air pollution comes from human activity. Volcanic eruptions, dust storms and other natural processes also cause problems. Sand and dust storms are particularly concerning.
A recent World Health Organisation report said that nine out of 10 people on the planet breathe dangerous air, and an estimated seven million premature deaths a year are caused by air pollution-related diseases, including stroke and heart disease, respiratory illness and cancer.
Thick, heavy smog caused by the burning of fossil fuels and crops is choking cities around the world. China has been forced to close tens of thousands of factories to reduce its air pollution. Air pollution in Africa has been ruled responsible for more deaths than unsanitary water or malnutrition. Last November, Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of India’s capital city, wrote: “Delhi has become a gas chamber.”
Pollution is not invisible-but it can be hard to see. The pollutants that give most causes for concern are toxic gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, or PM2.5. These gases come from car, truck and bus exhaust, the burning of fuels such as coal, oil, gas and petrol, as well as burning crop materials or naturally-
occurring forest and grass fires. These particles are so small- a fraction of the size of the diameter of a human hair-that they are easily ingested deep into the lungs.
These calls are supported by the indisputable fact that addressing the causes of air pollution-made more feasible thanks to the exponentially declining costs of renewables and nascent battery storage technology-results in immediate health benefits and helps preserve our future climate.
Driven in part by the demand for and the undeniable benefits of clean, breathable air, the paradigm in which development and economic growth depend on coal, in particular, is rapidly being replaced. The truth is that addressing global warming and its causes is now the only real way to secure economic growth. That means powering it with clean, everlasting, abundant alternatives. Governments everywhere can reap enormous benefits, including saving billions of dollars on health care, by fostering a shift to electric transport, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and scaling ecosystem restoration, including of mangroves, peat bogs and forests.
Countries all around the world are committing to rapidly phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles. India just announced that at least 15 per cent of the vehicles on its roads will be electric in five years. Ireland became the first country in the world to have voted to fully divest itself from fossil fuels. And recently, California passed legislation that ensures the state receives all of its power from renewable energy by 2045.
However, to do this within the window of time we have left to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must act with boldness and unprecedented urgency. There is no time to lose. Every breath matters.
The writer is an environmentalist and president of the Sustainable World Initiative, East Africa