Health impact of air pollution missing from two-thirds of national climate plans

Girls walk towards a school reopened after being closed for nearly 15 days due to a spike in air pollution, on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Girls walk towards a school reopened after being closed for nearly 15 days due to a spike in air pollution, on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

What’s the context?

Ahead of COP28, pressure is growing on countries to tackle health damage from air pollution - and its causes, including the use of fossil fuels

  • African nations among leaders linking clean air, climate
  • Only 51 climate plans mention air-pollution health concerns
  • Clean air policies cut respiratory and heart diseases

LAGOS/LONDON - Poorer countries in Africa are ahead of most rich nations when it comes to recognising clean air and its health benefits in their national climate plans - but their goals need to be backed with clear policies, action and finance, researchers said.

A new report named Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo and Ghana among the leading countries that have included air quality concerns in their climate action plans submitted to the United Nations, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

The scorecard, released on Wednesday by the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA), found that 14 of the top 15 countries were low- or middle-income nations, led by Colombia and Mali with Chile the only high-income country.

Yet overall, only 51 of the 170 NDCs - or fewer than a third of those analysed - referred to the health impacts of air pollution, the report said.

That means 6 billion people live in countries where the synergies between healthy air and climate have yet to be recognised in NDCs, it added. Several nations performing well on the scorecard also suffer high mortality from air pollution.

Air pollution - mostly caused by the burning of fossil fuels - causes more than 6.5 million deaths a year globally, a figure that is on the rise, according to a study published last year in the Lancet Planetary Health journal.

"Omitting air pollution considerations from NDCs is a missed opportunity for the planet, for people and for economies," said Jessica Beagley, policy lead at the GCHA, a coalition of health and environment NGOs and health professional organisations.

In early December, the U.N. COP28 climate summit in Dubai will be the first to dedicate a day to health, as more countries recognise and seek to tackle the health risks associated with climate change, such as increases in heat stress and malaria.

The annual conference will also host a ministerial dialogue on tackling the interlinked problems.

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But civil society activists expressed concern that the first draft of a COP28 declaration on climate and health - whose final version governments will be asked to sign up to - did not specifically refer to air pollution.

The GCHA report said clean air policies, such as transitioning to renewable energy and using cleaner cooking fuels indoors, have the potential to reduce health impacts and costs from problems like asthma and heart disease.

"Once you can start framing climate action in terms of health and dollars, that obviously builds much more support," said Beagley.

She said that the NDCs provide a "snapshot" of national climate priorities and the scorecard awarded points for things like recognising air pollution's health impacts, identifying actions to address it and weighing up the potential benefits.

Emissions blight cities

Nigeria's latest NDC, for example, lays out steps to encourage cooking with cleaner fuels instead of firewood, which its government says could save forests and greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding 30,000 premature deaths by 2030.

Oladoyin Odubanjo, executive secretary of the Nigerian Academy of Science, said the NDCs are more "declarations of intent" than concrete policies, and called on governments to put those commitments into action.

Odubanjo said fumes from open-air cooking and emissions produced by vehicles in urban areas like Lagos, Nigeria's largest city and commercial hub, are major sources of pollution, predisposing many to respiratory complications.

Despite significant health concerns, regulatory measures to curb sources of pollutants have been insufficient, he added.

"We see vehicles that are smoking like chimneys, that sometimes if you are not careful driving behind them, you can't see the road," he said. "Many people will tell you that by the time they get back home, they find it difficult to breathe, because they've been in the car."

A 2020 World Bank study found that emissions from cars, industrial zones and generator exhaust fumes are responsible for poor air quality in Lagos, leading to high rates of premature deaths and illnesses, with serious impacts for local residents.

Uber driver Friday Omoniyi said he has battled a chesty cough that keeps him awake at night since he took up the gig work in the city of over 23 million residents last year.

“After driving on Lagos roads for a day, I can't breathe well because of all the smoke from the cars - that is why I need to quit this job,” Omoniyi told Context, honking at several cars stuck in the morning commuter traffic.

Funding falls short

Audrey de Nazelle, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London's Centre of Environmental Policy who was not involved in the GCHA report, described air pollution as "the greatest environmental risk factor for burden of disease worldwide".

Focusing on health and air pollution in climate plans can promote more holistic and ambitious policies, she added - particularly in cities where tackling air pollution entails transforming the urban way of life.

For example, electrifying vehicles brings some benefits by lowering emissions and air pollution, but reducing car use overall also promotes healthier travel like walking and cycling, and can open up space for parks and trees, she added.

One major obstacle to tackling dirty air is the cost, especially given a lack of funding, the GCHA report noted, calling for urgent finance.

The recently released State of Global Air Quality Funding Report showed that just 1% of all international development funding - about $17 billion - was expressly committed to targeting outdoor air pollution between 2015 and 2021.

And only 2% of international public climate finance went towards tackling the problem in the same period, it said.

At the World Health Summit in Berlin on Tuesday, Maha Barakat, the UAE's assistant minister of foreign affairs for health, said the COP28 declaration on climate and health would require "significant concentration" on finance.

The Dubai conference would also launch a set of finance initiatives on climate and health, she said, including a pipeline of investments that "can be scaled up to save lives and safeguard health while materially reducing carbon emissions and other forms of pollution".

(Reporting by Jack Graham and Bukola Adebayo; additional reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Megan Rowling and Alister Doyle)

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