By Vanessa Akoth

As the world marked its second International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report reveals that despite more countries adopting policies on all major polluting sectors to improve air quality, large gaps in implementation, financing, capacity, and monitoring hinder global progress in achieving cleaner air.

The report Actions on air quality: a global summary of policies and programmes to reduce air pollution, is based on recent survey data from 195 countries from Asia, Africa and North America. It assesses policies and programmes in key sectors that contribute to air pollution: transportation, power generation, industrial emissions, solid waste management, household air pollution, and agriculture. It also looks at air quality monitoring, air quality management and air quality standards as key policy instruments to mitigate the impacts of air pollution.

As of 2020, 124 countries (about two-thirds) were found to have national ambient air quality standards, 17 more than reported in 2016. However, only 9% of these adhere to the limits established by the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Findings of the report show that although low-income countries suffer more from air pollution, actions to reduce air pollution have multiple development benefits, including climate mitigation, agricultural productivity, energy security, and economic growth.

“When governments act on air quality, they help prevent seven million premature deaths annually. They also improve the overall health and economic well-being of 92% of the world population that lives where air quality levels exceed World Health Organization (WHO) limits. Today, we have more policies in place than ever before, but it is absolutely critical that we focus on implementation, especially where people are disproportionately affected by poor air quality,” Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP said.

In a statement, UNEP said to improve air quality, there would need to be better enforcement of existing policies and regulations, more substantial financing, and more widespread monitoring and stronger capacities.

UNEP is calling on countries to incorporate investments in air pollution clean-up into their post-COVID-19 recovery plans. It is also calling for setting benchmarks to assess current and future actions towards cleaner air and to remove barriers in the implementation of policies and programmes, including financing and capacity gaps, and to overcome affordability and maintenance challenges of monitoring equipment.

The theme for this year’s International Day of Clean Air for blue skies celebrated on 7th September was ‘Healthy Air Healthy Planet.’

“Like many societal ills, air pollution reflects global inequalities. Poverty forces people to live close to sources of pollution, like factories and highways, and burn solid fuels or kerosene for cooking, heating, and lighting.  The pollution that is damaging our health is also driving the climate crisis. I call on all countries to do more to improve air quality, invest in renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, phase out coal, and transition to zero emission vehicles,” António Guterres, UN Secretary-General said during the official commemorations of the event hosted in Nairobi, New York and Bangkok.

Speaking at the official event in Nairobi, Andersen said: “Improving air quality won’t just help improve our health. It will help us save the planet. We all breathe the same air, and we all have a role to play in protecting it. The world is coming together, but we need to translate commitments into policies and actions. For human and planetary health for generations to come, 2021 will be a pivotal year.”

UNEP has teamed up with IQAira Swiss air quality technology company, to launch a global air pollution calculator. The tool launched last year, deploys artificial intelligence and builds on the world’s largest air quality data platform, to estimate population exposure of any country, each hour.

Additionally, UNEP has teamed up with Safaricom, a Kenyan telecomunication company to stream real-time air pollution measurements around the city to a large digital billboard. The pilot project is the first of its kind on the continent and includes multiple stakeholders, including local government and advertising providers. It aims to elevate awareness of the impact of air pollution among Nairobi’s 4.7 million inhabitants, who suffer routinely from deadly levels of fine particulate matter.

The International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, first marked in 2020, calls for increased international cooperation at the global, regional and sub-regional levels. It provides a platform for strengthening global solidarity as well as political momentum for action against air pollution and climate change, including actions like the increased collection of air quality data, carrying out joint research, developing new technologies and sharing best practices.