Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

UNEP Gets Mandate to Combat Air Pollution, Illegal Trade in Wildlife, Timber

Cutting air pollution can save millions of lives annually, cut global warming in half

Nairobi, 28 June 2014Wrapping up its week-long deliberations Friday night, the inaugural UN Environment Assembly, attended by high-level delegations from 160 States, strengthened UNEP’s mandate to combat air pollution and illegal trade in wildlife and timber, as well as to address plastics dumped in the oceans, dangerous chemicals, land-based waste, and other issues. Sixteen decisions and resolutions were passed to strengthen environmental protection and promote sustainable development.

Air pollution was targeted as a top priority because it is now the world’s single largest preventable health risk. According to the World Health Organization, one in eight deaths in 2012 was from air pollution—more than malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS combined. Outdoor air pollution caused 3.7 million deaths globally in 2012, while air pollution from the burning of solid fuels for heating and cooking caused another 4.3 million deaths. Exposure to air pollution from black carbon soot, also known as “particulate matter,” is linked to ischemic heart disease, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, respiratory infections, and lung cancer.

“Reducing air pollution not only can save millions of lives a year and cut crop losses significantly, it also can cut the rate of global warming in half through the middle of the century,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, speaking at a side-event at the Environmental Assembly.

Zaelke added, “Cleaning up these two air pollutants can avoid six times more global warming by 2050 than aggressive cuts to carbon dioxide can avoid in the same period, although we can’t win the climate battle without doing carbon dioxide too, of course. UNEP’s new air pollution mandate sets it up for a triple win—for healthier citizens, increased food production, and fast climate protection that cuts the rate of global warming in half.”

The Environmental Assembly urged States to set standards and policies to reduce air pollution, and directed UNEP to expand its assistance to States, including through national capacity building. This gives a boost to UNEP’s ongoing air pollution programs, including its work through the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, and the Atmospheric Brown Cloud program.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) held two events as part of the Environmental Assembly to explain the benefits of cutting the four climate pollutants known collectively as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) due to their relatively short atmospheric lifetimes. The SLCPs include black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, the main component of urban smog, and hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, used primarily as refrigerants. According to the CCAC’s new publication, Time to Act, fast action to reduce SLCPs can cut the rate of climate change in half, slowing global temperature rise by up to ~0.6°C by 2050 and 1.5°C by 2100, while preventing 2.4 million air pollution-related deaths per year, and avoiding around 30 million tonnes of crop losses annually.

“Many States already have laws to cut air pollution, but stronger enforcement and compliance efforts are needed to make the laws work,” said Zaelke, who also serves as the Director of the International Network for Environmental Compliance & Enforcement (INECE), a trans-governmental network of governmental officials in more than 100 countries. UNEP and the World Bank and other regional development banks participate in INECE.

“The resolutions agreed by Member States at UNEA will help shape the global environmental agenda into the future,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

The Assembly also called for stronger actions to battle illegal trade in wildlife and timber, which damage the environment and undercut sustainable development. States are urged to fight illegal trade through targeted actions to eradicate supply, transit, and demand for illegal wildlife products. The goal is zero-tolerance and the development of sustainable and alternative livelihoods for communities harmed by the illegal trade.

UNEP was also directed to support States in the development and implementation of strategies to promote the environmental rule of law at national level.

UNEA Compilation of Decisions and Resolutions

IGSD’s Primer on SLCPs

IGSD’s Primer on HFCs