The blue skies that appeared in Delhi, Mumbai and other previously polluted cities this year because of the COVID-19 lockdown offered a tantalizing but temporary vision of how bright our future might look. If India can speedily and successfully transition away from fossil fuels and ensure that all families have access to clean cooking technology, those blue skies could become permanent instead of ephemeral.
The world has made uneven and unsatisfactory progress towards the goal of blue skies for all people. As leaders gather at the United Nations General Assembly to forge recovery from this pandemic and build resilience to future shocks like it, they have the opportunity — and duty — to simultaneously tackle the deadly pollution our economy spews and work to achieve everyone’s right to breathe clean air.
Every day, thousands of people in India die of illnesses caused by air pollution. According to the best available evidence, air pollution causes between 1,241,000 and 1,795,181 premature deaths annually in India. The global total, 7 million premature deaths, vastly exceeds the death toll of COVID-19. It also exceeds the combined total of deaths caused annually by war, murder, car accidents, plane crashes, Ebola, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Among its terrible toll, air pollution kills hundreds of thousands of children aged five and under.
Clean air is critically important to human life and wellbeing. Scientific research on the adverse health effects of air pollution reveals ever greater impacts. It is now indisputable that breathing dirty air causes respiratory illnesses, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, while new evidence suggests links to premature births, diabetes, and damage to the brain. It could even increase the risk of death from COVID-19, by causing the underlying health conditions that make people more susceptible to respiratory illness, early research suggests.
Here’s a strange paradox: in 2010, the United Nations passed a pioneering resolution, recognizing for the first time that clean water is a basic human right. Yet no similar resolution has ever been proposed, let alone passed, for clean air. There are two main categories of air pollution. Outdoor air pollution is caused largely by industry, coal-fired electricity generation, and transportation. Household air pollution is mainly a result of cooking and heating with solid fuels, as well as burning kerosene for lighting. Outdoor and indoor pollution mix together to produce worse air quality. For example, in India, the indoor burning of solid fuels is a major contributor to outdoor air pollution.
It is shocking that nine out of 10 people globally live in regions where air pollution exceeds World Health Organization standards. The worst air quality is not on the streets of the India’s smoggiest cities. It is in people’s homes, where solid fuels are used for cooking, exposing women and children to fine particles and other pollutants at levels hundreds of times higher than outdoors.
The good news amongst is that air pollution is almost entirely preventable. Proven solutions exist, from strong regulations to clean technologies. As an added bonus, many of the solutions to air pollution also address climate change.
There are seven key steps that states need to take to protect human rights from air pollution. These include: establishing air quality monitoring networks; quantifying the main sources of air pollution; engaging and informing the public; enacting laws, regulations, and air quality standards; developing a national action plan to achieve the standards; allocating adequate resources to implement the plan; and evaluating progress, and if necessary, taking stronger actions.
Because cooking with solid fuels causes millions of premature deaths annually, switching to clean cookstoves and fuels needs to be a global priority. India has made impressive progress by providing free LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) stoves to over one hundred million poor families. These stoves dramatically reduce pollution, deliver major health benefits and save time cooking and gathering fuels such as firewood, a benefit that largely accrues to women. LPG stoves also produce lower greenhouse gas emissions than burning solid fuels. This may be the only situation in the world where subsidizing the increased use of fossil fuels makes sense.
Switching all remaining Indian households to clean stoves and clean fuels by 2030 would require an investment of approximately US$2 billion per year. In light of the reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, health benefits, time savings and associated economic opportunities for women, quality of life improvements, reduced pressure on forests (for firewood), this is a fantastic investment. This sum also fits easily within the $100 billion in annual financial assistance that wealthy nations have committed to mobilize for low-income countries to address the challenges of climate change.
Other proven solutions include replacing coal-fired electricity with renewables, emphasizing walking and cycling in cities, electrifying public transit, ending fossil fuel subsidies, improving waste management, and helping farmers to shift to cleaner practices.
More than 850 civil society groups have this month signed a letter calling on the Human Rights Council to guarantee our human right to a clean, safe and healthy environment. We can’t have a healthy environment without clean air.
Air pollution clearly violates the rights to life and health, the rights of the child, and the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The human rights perspective changes everything, because governments have clear, legally enforceable obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.
Everyone has the right to breathe clean air. That billions of people today are breathing dirty and deadly air constitutes a global health crisis and an egregious violation of human rights. Urgent action from governments across the world is needed. Not only do we have an opportunity to save millions of lives and trillions of dollars in the next decade by reducing air pollution, we have a moral obligation to do so.
(David R. Boyd is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and presented a report on air pollution to the Human Rights Council in 2019.)
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NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.