Climate and health: Time to unmask solutions

Globally, an estimated 6.5 million deaths are attributed to air pollution every year. Cities around the world are facing some of the most severe effects of air pollution. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 80 percent of the urban population is exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO guideline limits.

On 13 November, at a COP23 session organized by WHO, Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, leaders and health and climate experts sat together to focus on solutions – concrete actions that can be taken to address the critical issue of air pollution and the devastating health outcomes. These diverse organizations working on climate and health are focusing on the science, tracking global data on levels of air pollution and the effects and building evidence-based solutions that can bring about needed change.

Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, a climate change and health team leader at WHO made clear that they are serious about preventing disease as well as treating it. He argued that this means tackling pollution on all fronts, not only reducing carbon emissions that contribute to long term climate change but also short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP) from key sources such as cook stoves. These short-term actions can have immediate effects on public health within the most vulnerable communities.

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is working to implement programs that raise awareness and action on air pollution. Campaigns such as Breathe Life and Unmask My City do just that. Unmask My City works directly with health care providers to raise awareness and conduct risk assessments. The program provides air pollution masks that measure the air quality and have signal lights that indicate pollution levels so people are aware of their surroundings. These measures are working with cities to target key areas for action.

A pilot program in Accra and Kathmandu organized by ICLEI, UN Habitat, WHO and CCAC is working to support governments at all levels to tackle air pollution. The work incudes building the competencies of policy makers on health and climate, then developing tools to implement policy and infrastructure changes. Scenario planning is critical to this process as cities work to understand how they can shift policies and practices to help build healthier cities for their residents.

Marcelo Mena-Carrasco, Minister of the Environment of Chile shared various solutions that have been employed to better air pollution across the country. Air pollution was of paramount importance in Chile with 4000 cases of premature mortality every year and an estimated 8 billion dollars spent on healthcare costs associated with pollution. Facing this challenge, the government took direct action, placing restrictions on dirty cars and implementing no wood burning days. These actions have led directly to improvement in health indicators. In places where action was taken, there was a 38 percent reduction in emergency room visits associated with air pollution – in places where no action was taken there was a 13 percent increase.

Minister Mena-Carrasco was awarded the Climate and Clean Air Coalition honorary award for creating and implementing air quality plans in fourteen different Chilean cities. This work shows the impact that local, regional and national governments can make when they take concrete and immediate action to tackle air pollution. The solutions are being developed at the local level and with support from diverse organizations, the crucial step is that all of these key actors and stakeholders come together to take action and build healthier cities and communities.

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