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World Environment Day 2020: why clean air is vital for healthy ecosystems

We all need clean air to live. It is one of the things that we don’t think much about, we breathe in and breathe out automatically and take the air around us for granted. But dirty air takes a heavy toll on human health and the environment, leading to 7 million premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.

We are all part of the problem as our activities emit harmful pollutants into the air. We not only damage our own health, but also biodiversity and ecosystems. Pollutants emitted by industry, transport and agriculture impact ecosystems in multiple ways: some pollutants affect the ability of plants to function and grow. Others can cause ‘acid rain’ and acidify water, vegetation and soils. Ultimately, acidification affects the ability of ecosystems to provide ‘ecosystem services’, such as nutrient and carbon cycling, but also water provision, on which the planet and human life is dependent. Another consequence of air pollution is damage to water bodies resulting from nutrient overloads, leading to algae blooms and ultimately to a loss of oxygen, and of life. As ecosystems are impacted, so is the biological diversity. 

What affects ecosystems and biodiversity also affects us: pollutants enter our drinking water, our food chain and – of course, our lungs.

We all need to be part of the solution to protect ecosystems and biodiversity from the adverse effects of air pollution. On World Environment Day, celebrated annually on 5 June, we speak up for our environment. This year’s theme “Time for Nature” highlights the essential services ecosystems and biodiversity provide for our planet to be habitable.

40 years ago, the notorious die-back of forests – or Waldsterben, as it came to be known – that was a result of air pollution-induced acid rain motivated governments of the region to sign an international legally-binding contract back in 1979: the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention).

The cooperation among Parties to the Convention to improve air quality has led to remarkable results: air pollution trends and economic growth have been decoupled. Emissions of harmful substances including particulate matter and sulphur have been cut by 30-80% since 1990 in Europe and 30-40% in North America. This has led to healthier forest soils and lakes. In Europe, these measures account for 1 additional year of life expectancy and prevent 600,000 premature deaths annually. The Convention is thus a reminder that cooperation across sectors and borders is indispensable to protect our environment.