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Air pollution and climate change

In December 2015 the world’s leaders met in Paris to determine the fate of our planet’s climate. Until recently the policy and scientific debates around air pollution and climate change tended to take place separately. However, it is increasingly understood that the two are inexorably linked. 

Sectors that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions are also sources of air pollution and there are certainly opportunities, political leverage and cost savings to be made by tackling both together. Burning of fossil fuels, for example, is a major source of both air pollutants and greenhouse gases. Air pollution also has a short term regional climate effect – pollutants like black particles, ozone and its precursors contribute to warming and are thus recognized as short-lived climate pollutants. While the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions may have important co-benefits for decreasing air pollution, especially in the energy and industry sectors, some measures to mitigate climate change may have negative impacts on air quality. Such examples can be particularly found in the transport and residential heating sectors (use of biomass and biofuels). 

There are gains to be made across both climate and air pollution policy, as in some cases technological improvements in the same target sector may serve both objectives. Thus, policy-makers can achieve substantial gains by approaching the challenges of air pollution and climate change conjointly. 

What we do

The Convention’s Gothenburg Protocol is the first legally-binding agreement containing obligations to reduce the broader spectrum of short-lived climate pollutants, including ground-level ozone precursors and black carbon, and is thus an example of an integrated approach tackling both air pollution and climate change. 

The Cooperative Programme for Monitoring and Evaluation of the Long-range Transmission of Air Pollutants in Europe (EMEP) provides sound scientific support to the Convention, in particular in the areas of: (i) atmospheric measurements and modelling; (ii) emission inventories and emission projections; and (iii) integrated assessment. As the source of information on the emission, transport and deposition of air pollution, EMEP plays a major role in informing policy developments under the Convention. For example, EMEP contributed in developing the Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model, which provides a consistent framework for the analysis of co-benefits reduction strategies from air pollution and greenhouse gas sources. The GAINS model has been used for policy analyses under the Convention and by other stakeholders, such as the European Union and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Task Force on Hemispheric Transport of Air Pollution under the Convention develops a better understanding of the intercontinental transport of air pollution across the Northern Hemisphere, including estimates of specific air pollutants. It also works on the interactions between greenhouse gases and air pollution. This integrated approach will benefit countries when they strive to achieve the targets under Sustainable Development Goal 13 on climate action.