UN: 9 out of every 10 people around the world breathe unclean air UN: 9 out of every 10 people around the world breathe unclean air 

UN marks first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies

The UN General Assembly on December 19, 2019, established September 7 as the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, underscoring the importance of clean air for the health and day-to-day lives of all.

By Robin Gomes

In a message for Monday’s observance of the first International Day of Clean Air,  on the theme, “Clean Air for All”, the UN chief notes that 9 out of every 10 people around the world breathe unclean air. He calls on all to join hands in building a better future with clean air for all.

Price of pollution

“Air pollution contributes to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases,” notes UN Secretary-General António Guterres, urging for greater efforts to address the problem of air pollution. 

Citing UN figures, he points out that air pollution “causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths every year, predominantly in low- and middle-income countries,” threatening “the economy, food security and the environment.”

Post Covid-19 situation

“As we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, the world needs to pay far greater attention to air pollution, which also increases the risks associated with Covid-19,” he urges. 

This year, while the lockdowns associated with the global pandemic led to dramatic falls in emissions – providing a glimpse of cleaner air in many cities – emissions are already rising again, in some places surpassing pre-Covid levels. 

Guterres calls for “dramatic and systemic change”, stressing, “reinforced environmental standards, policies and laws that prevent emissions of air pollutants are needed more than ever.” 

Climate action for clean air

The UN Secretary-General notes that addressing climate change can help fight air pollution. 

“Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees will help reduce air pollution, death and disease,” he says, calling on countries to end subsidies for fossil fuels as well as use post-Covid recovery packages to support the transition to healthy and sustainable jobs. 

“I call on governments still providing finance for fossil fuel-related projects in developing countries to shift that support towards clean energy and sustainable transport.” 

“At the international level,” he adds, “countries need to cooperate to help each other transition to clean technologies.”  

Message from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.


In a separate message, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), also voices similar concerns over the huge environmental threat of air pollution to human health.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the “skies may have looked clearer and bluer than before as air pollution drops but,” she points out, “economic lockdowns are not the way to build a healthier world.

The poor bear the brunt

Air pollution, Andersen notes, has a disproportionate impact on the poor, with mounting economic costs, such as through “healthcare bills, lost productivity, reduced crop yields or the eroded competitiveness of cities.”

Message from UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.

While establishing the International Day of Clean Air, the General Assembly pointed out air pollution disproportionately affects women, children and older persons.  It acknowledged that improving air quality enhances climate change mitigation and vice versa.

The September 7 International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UNEP chief says,  was established to teach individuals, communities, businesses and government that clean air is fundamental for our future.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have proved that a cleaner sky is possible.  With solutions and technology in hand, Andersen says, humanity needs to act together quickly to beat air pollution and protect human health. 

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07 September 2020, 13:25