Don’t forget the air we breathe

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by Dr. Megan L. Melamed, International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC) Project

The world continues to urbanize rapidly. As outlined in a recent report, for the first time in human history the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. Urban areas, especially megacities (cities with population greater than 10 million), are not only the center of growing economies, but according to an article published in the journal Science, urban areas are also large sources of air pollutants. Air pollutants have demonstrable and significant impacts on human health, food and water security, ecosystems, and climate.  For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), outdoor air pollutants cause over 1 million premature deaths per a year.

And the outlook for the future looks even worse when it comes to outdoor air pollution.  A new report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says outdoor air pollution is projected to be the world’s top environmental cause of mortality worldwide, ahead of dirty water and lack of sanitation, by 2050.   Exposure to particulate matter and ground-level ozone will cause over 4 million premature deaths per a year by 2050.  Areas of the world that are rapidly developing and urbanizing, such as China and India, will experience the most premature deaths due to air pollution.

Yet the future biggest environmental issue is not being incorporated into sustainable development or climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.  For example, the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development zero order draft of The Future We Want fails to incorporate air quality as a key sustainable development goal.  A recent article in Atmospheric Environment points out that adaptation to climate change is primarily thought of as a water, weather, and infrastructure issue despite the fact that air quality and climate change are heavily intertwined. Why is it that the air we breathe is not considered an important component of sustainable development and climate change adaptation and mitigation?

We live in a changing world.  Urbanization, economic development, energy choices, and policy decisions are changing the amount and composition of air pollutants that are emitted into the atmosphere.  There is an incredible opportunity to reduce the number of premature deaths due to air pollution by making air quality an integral component of sustainable development goals and climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.  It’s time to act.  Let’s not let the air we breathe become the number one environmental cause of mortality worldwide.

There will be two sessions on air pollution at Planet Under Pressure 2012.  The Atmospheric Composition in a Changing World: Scientific Knowledge and Uncertainty session focuses on scientific research underpinning our understanding of the Earth System response to changing emissions and atmospheric composition.  The Tackling the Air Pollution and Climate Change Challenge: A Science-Policy Dialogue session will provide a forum for a science-policy dialogue on creating an integrated approach to simultaneously mitigating air pollution and climate change.  A, IGBP/IGSC statement entitled Time to Act: The Opportunity to Simultaneously Mitigate Air Pollution and Climate Change, highlighting key air pollution and climate linkages and calling for an integrated approach to mitigating air pollution and climate change, will be released as part of the session.

Dr. Megan L. Melamed is the Executive Officer of the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry  (IGAC) Project, which operates under the umbrella of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and is jointly sponsored by the international Commission on Atmospheric Chemistry and Global Pollution (iCACGP).  IGAC coordinates and fosters atmospheric research towards a sustainable world.

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One response to “Don’t forget the air we breathe

  1. Thanks for providing helpful information for me, will try to bookmark it and share it to my entire network. Thank you.

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