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Buildings under a hazy skyline are seen in downtown Guangzhou, capital city of China's southern Guangdong province, in this November 17, 2004 file photo. China's worsening air pollution, after decades of unbridled economic growth, cost the country $112 billion in 2005 in lost economic productivity, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found. The figure, which also took into account people's lost leisure time because of illness or death, was $22 billion in 1975, according to researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.Credit: Reuters

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Air Pollution – A Silent Killer

By Achim Steiner, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme | 19 June 2014

The world is under attack from a silent killer with impacts four times that of HIV and AIDS, and most people don’t even seem to know it.

In March this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report estimating that air pollution caused the premature deaths of seven million people in 2012, equivalent to one in eight of all deaths that year and double the previous estimate.

The main culprits are small particulates—pollutants less than one tenth the thickness of a human hair that are produced by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biomass. Cooking, heating and especially vehicles are a primary source. These particulates penetrate deep into the lungs and blood stream, causing heart attacks, cancer and, in many cases, death. At the same time, the smallest of these particulates, called black carbon, absorb sunlight and warm our atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

Paris, the City of Lights, made headlines in March when the Eiffel Tower disappeared under a smoggy pall. The metropolis responded by making public transport free and introducing a scheme under which drivers could only use their cars on alternate days. This haze of pollution is just one example, and not even the worst. WHO recommends a maximum level of particulate matter of 20 micrograms per cubic metre, yet major cities such as Cairo, Delhi and Beijing are on average far beyond this limit. In Beijing, air pollution is a common occurrence, and has been known to reach 300 micrograms per cubic metre.

There is good news, however. We have the know-how, technology and approaches to reduce these emissions immediately, and dozens of countries have already stepped up to take responsibility. With rapid global replication and acceleration of action, we can save lives.

Many measures are needed, including providing safe alternatives to indoor cooking and heating in low-income countries, but vehicle emissions are a priority: fleets in emerging-economy cities are set to double in the next five to ten years and the global fleet is set to grow from about one billion to three billion vehicles by 2050.

Success in reducing leaded petrol shows changes is possible

Sceptics may say that it will take a long time to clean up the global car fleet, but experience shows that rapid improvements are feasible. When the UNEP-led Partnership for Clean Fuel and Vehicles (PFCV)—with the involvement of car manufacturers, car manufacturer associations and petrol corporations— launched in 2002, about half of the world’s countries still used leaded petrol, causing massive health and societal impacts. The PFCV supported over 80 countries, with the end result that as of October 2013 only six countries still used a small amount of leaded petrol. This shift avoids an estimated 1.3 million premature deaths annually.

Today, we are targeting small particulates for similar action, and we are already seeing a global shift to low-sulphur fuels. Some 13 developing countries have reached the 50 parts-per-million target on low-sulphur fuels, and another 30 countries made significant gains in bringing levels down to that target. For example in Kenya, where UNEP is headquartered, levels used to be up to 10,000 parts per million—one thousand times higher than in Europe. Last year, East African Environment Ministers agreed to move to low-sulphur fuels by the end of 2014.

While such advances are encouraging, further reductions in global emissions will be needed, for example through the introduction of new technologies such as hybrid and electric vehicles.

Supporting action

UNEP is supporting countries and their partners to fast track action on this challenge through the PCFV and other programmes such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition—which works to reduce short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon in a number of key sectors, including transport, agriculture, waste, household cooking and heating, and brick production. Yet we can all do so much more.

Next week, the world’s environment ministers will meet at UNEP’s Headquarters in Nairobi for the first-ever United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA). One of the key themes is the Sustainable Development Goals, and it is clear that attempts to improve quality of life through sustainable development will be hampered should the very air we breathe prove deadly. Air pollution is also on the agenda of UNEA, and the meeting is expected to call on countries to act swiftly and request UNEP to support them in their actions.

While wheels have been set in motion, there is no time to lose. Every year that passes means another seven million deaths. We should not wait for the next WHO report to tell us that this number has doubled once more.

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Any opinions Expressed in "Executive Perspectives" are those of external parties and not those of Thomson Reuters.


Climate and Energy, Executive Perspective

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