World leaders have been urged to slash the planet’s level of air pollution as efforts to tackle the climate crisis are ramped up.
Greenhouse gases have long been condemned by scientists for fuelling global warming, but now a UN branch has also called for a reduction in all toxic fumes.
It hopes to stop high emissions of some chemicals which do not receive widespread attention.
While most greenhouse gases contaminate the air, not all air pollutants have a warming effect and cutting emissions of all toxic chemicals is thought to have both ecological and public health benefits.
Carbon monoxide and lead particles, for example, are not greenhouse gases but still contaminate the air.
The shifting focus to promoting clean air marks a sea change in environmentalism – which has historically centred on carbon dioxide – and reflects the growing presence of climate change on the world stage.
Pollution obscures the view of the skyline of Denver, Colorado, where clean air has long been fought for by campaigners
Tourists wearing masks at the Temple of Heaven in haze-covered Beijing, China where air pollution was declared a ‘crisis’ by the World Health Organisation
Jian Liu, air pollution expert with the UN Environment Programme, hailed the move demanding action on curbing air pollution.
‘We have seen that countries are forthcoming to join this initiative as it is about immediate public health,’ he told the BBC.
‘And it has co-benefits: air quality and the climate.’
On Monday, representatives from governments, and international powers will gather in New York for the UN Climate Action Summit.
A view of the Eiffel Tower seen through thick smog in Paris, caused by fine particle pollution in the French capital (2014 file photo)
A thick yellow cloud covers a busy intersection in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei province in 2012
Reducing carbon dioxide (C02)- a greenhouse gas but not an air pollutant – has previously dominated the climate agenda.
A by-product of burning heavily relied upon fossil fuels, CO2 comprises two-thirds of the globe’s emissions.
But air pollutants such as methane and black carbon – which are also greenhouse gases – are also reportedly damaging the ozone.
A recent World Health Organisation report concluded that a decrease in these fumes would ‘benefit human health immediately and slow the rate of near-term warming’.
Mr Liu said that curbing these gases, known as Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, are vital to hitting the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement.
WHAT IS AIR POLLUTION?
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process.
It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production.
The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm.
CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans.
The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.
Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.
SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
What is particulate matter?
Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air.
Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye.
Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.
Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).
Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture
Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.
Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.
Why are particulates dangerous?
Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads.
What sort of health problems can pollution cause?
According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution.
Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes.
As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution.
Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer.
Deaths from pollution
Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems.
Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed.
Problems in pregnancy
Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.
Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.
For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds.
Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’.
What is being done to tackle air pollution?
Paris agreement on climate change
The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change.
It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.
Carbon neutral by 2050
The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050.
They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.
Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.
International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.
No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040
In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040.
From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.
However, MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.
The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.
Norway’s electric car subsidies
The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.
A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient.
Criticisms of inaction on climate change
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change.
The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.
The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.
It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall.
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