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UNECE shares 40 years of experience under its Air Convention at 1st WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health

Air pollution is a silent killer, leading to an estimated 7 million premature deaths every year- some 600,000 alone in the European region. This makes it by far the biggest environmental health risk in the world. Air pollution is known to increase risks for diseases as diverse as strokes, heart diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, lung cancers, acute respiratory infections, and many more, as scientific evidence piles up.  

The majority of air pollutant-related deaths occur in developing countries, with Western Pacific and South East Asia being the most affected regions. But no region or country is unscathed. Pollution knows no borders and can travel thousands of kilometers, as evidenced by research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to the adoption of the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution in 1979 under the auspices of UNECE.

UNECE shared its experience of 40 years of regional cooperation under the Convention at the First WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health: Improving air quality, combatting climate change – saving lives in Geneva this week (30 October to 1 November 2018).

The Air Convention entered into force in 1983, becoming the first international treaty to deal with air pollution on a broad regional basis. Today, the Convention covers 51 Parties in the Northern Hemisphere, stretching from Canada and the US to Europe and as far East as Kazakhstan. Since its entry into force, the Convention has been extended by 8 protocols setting emission reduction targets for several pollutants, such as, among others, sulphur, nitrogen oxides, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and particulate matter, including black carbon.

The results of these collective efforts are significant: emissions in Europe have been reduced by 70 percent for sulphur and by 40 percent for nitrogen oxides since 1990.

The Air Convention provides a platform for countries to discuss policies to reduce air pollution and to negotiate new emission targets, placing science at the core of its work. Over the last 40 years, the scientific network under the Convention has covered a lot of ground, from atmospheric monitoring and modeling; deposition; integrated assessments; cost-effective scenario development; and work on the effects of air pollution on various receptors, such as human health, forests, lakes, cultural monuments, and crops, to name just a few.

The Convention also monitors compliance of Parties with their reporting obligations and supports countries in capacity building and awareness raising at the national level.

In 2016, the Scientific Assessment Report showed that coordinated action under the Convention has significantly improved air quality in North America and Europe. If economic growth and air pollution trends had not been decoupled, we would have had 3 times more health impacts, and the premature death of 600,000 more people, than today. Fortunately, as a result of policy-driven reductions in air pollution, average life expectancy in Europe has increased by one year and hundreds of thousands of premature deaths every year have been avoided.

Despite this success, more progress is still needed. Today, even if emissions are reduced at the street, urban and national level, background levels of pollution influenced by transboundary sources are still higher than what WHO recommends as guideline values. This is why international cooperation on the transboundary part of air pollution, including beyond the UNECE region, is key. In her contribution to a high-level panel discussion, UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova thus encouraged representatives from other regions to work together across national borders to reduce air pollution to save lives.

During the Conference, Ministers and other high-level representatives joined the call for action and announced a number of commitments in the fight against air pollution.

For more information, please visit: https://www.unece.org/env/lrtap/welcome.html.html