5 June 2019: The 2019 World Environment Day was marked by campaigns to fight air pollution around the world, as the UN and governments highlighted that seven million people, including 600,000 children, die annually from causes related to poor air quality. David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, issued a statement calling on governments to treat the issue urgently, as part of their human rights commitments.
Global celebrations of World Environment Day were co-hosted by the Government of China and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in Hangzhou. Li Ganjie, Minister for Ecology and the Environment, China, chaired the event, which was attended by more than 1,100 participants.
The UN estimates that a premature death from air pollution occurs every five seconds. Boyd linked the issue with the right to a healthy environment, which, he noted, is recognized by more than 150 States. His report on the issue, released earlier in 2019, outlines steps for States to take, including, inter alia: monitor air quality and the impacts of poor air quality on human health; assess the sources of air pollution; make information publicly available, including through public health advisories; and establish laws, policies and standards for air quality. He praised China’s efforts in addressing air pollution, noting that particulate matter (PM) in the atmosphere has recently declined by one-third.
Han Zheng, Vice-Premier, China, delivered a greeting from Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling for continued global efforts to protect the environment and promote sustainable development. Han recognized the efforts of Zhejiang Province, where the city of Hangzhou is located, in implementing a rural village reconstruction and restoration programme, which won a UN Champions of the Earth Award in 2018. Che Jun, Party Secretary, Zhejiang Province, recounted to guests how the Hangzhou Steel Group, which had heavily polluted a district in Hangzhou with its production, was forced by the government to shut down its production base but managed to transform its business to concentrate on environmental protection, digital technology, and tourism within a couple of years, leading to a significant increase in profits.
Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director, UNEP, shared a message from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that underscores the global costs of air pollution, estimated at USD 5 trillion annually. Guterres calls on governments to tax pollution, end fossil fuel subsidies, and stop building new coal plants. Msuya recognized the Chinese government’s allocation of more than USD 10 billion from 2013-2018 to fight air pollution.
Li highlighted eight measures taken by China since 2013 to fight air pollution: launching a national air pollution prevention action plan; restricting industry activity and shutting down outdated production facilities; optimizing the energy structure and setting targets for coal consumption, including control and quality standards; promoting clean energy development and electric vehicle transport; setting up regional joint management mechanisms for air pollution control; enforcing legal regulations and amending the Law on the Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution; enforcing air pollution controls through legal and judicial action; and encouraging public participation in green lifestyles and reporting of illegal pollution activities.
Ban Ki-moon, President and Chair, Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and former UN Secretary-General, remarked that air pollution cannot be dealt with alone, and called on all nations to work in solidarity. He warned that, “climate change is approaching faster than we think,” and urged immediate action, reminding delegates that nature “cannot be negotiated with.”
Li Haisheng, Head, National Joint Research Center for Tackling Key Problems in Air Pollution Control, and President, Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, presented the newly-released Air Quality Improvement Report 2013-2018, which comprises a review of achievements, measures, challenges, and results in terms of air pollution control. He highlighted that the report reflects progress on air quality achieved with government leadership, business participation and citizen inclusion, adding that, while significant progress has been made on reducing air pollution, there is still a “tremendous challenge” to be addressed.
Numerous other activities and launches took place around the world to mark the Day.
In India, for example, the government launched its comprehensive action plan to clean up air quality in Agra, where the Taj Mahal monument is located. The plan commits to addressing the sources of air pollution in the area, including from road dust, vehicle emissions, burning of garbage, and construction and demolition activities. India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change launched a National Clean Air Programme earlier in 2019.
Elsewhere, World Environment Day was marked by UNEP’s ‘mask challenge’ campaign, in which people all over the world take a photo of themselves wearing a mask and share this on social media. UNEP highlights that air pollution can be effectively tackled by phasing out fossil fuels, using renewable energy sources, and fighting deforestation, adding that such action will also contribute to achieving the SDGs.
UNEP also launched a report titled, ‘Air Pollution and Human Health: The Case of the Western Balkans,’ which highlights the health impacts of poor air quality, based on a study conducted in 19 cities in the region. The report explains that the use of coal and firewood for home heating is responsible for particulate matter (PM) emissions, and that air quality can be improved by providing greater access to modern, clean energy. [UN Press Release] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]