Air pollution and climate change are having a serious impact on global health. Nearly one quarter of all global deaths are a result of the environment, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2016 report Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: A Global Assessment of the Burden of Disease from Environmental Risks. One of the greatest environmental threats to human health is air pollution.
Many low- and middle-income countries do not monitor air quality, and either lack effective emission control legislation or simply fail to enforce legislation. As a result, their populations face a disproportionate disease burden. In addition to outdoor exposure to air pollution, WHO estimated in 2016 that almost 3 billion people around the world were still burning biomass fuel and coal indoors, in order to cook or to heat their homes, which resulted in more than 4 million deaths annually.
In 2018, WHO estimated that more than 80% of people living in urban areas (that monitor air pollution) are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the organization’s limits - and that 97% of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality guidelines (the figure falls to 49% for high-income countries).
Air pollution is also a primary contributor to climate change, which has generated global health risks including changes in vector-borne disease patterns, water scarcity, food insecurity, and violence. These threats are most severe for vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and the poor. Additional measures are needed in order to reduce exposure to air pollution and mitigate the effects of climate change, and decrease disease rates and mortality.
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, have recognized this need and provide goals and targets in order to prioritize action (though one of the world’s biggest sources of carbon emissions and pollution, the US, has announced plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement).