How addressing the link between climate change, air quality and public health may help us all breathe easier

How addressing the link between climate change, air quality and public health may help us all breathe easier

This article is part of the Forum Network series on International Co-operation and will feed into upcoming discussions at OECD Forum 2019.

When delegates gather for the OECD Forum 2019 in Paris this month, they might choose to head out for some fresh air at the beautiful Bois de Boulogne. Often referred to as the “lungs of Paris,” along with the Bois de Vincennes, these parks are a reminder of the vital importance of oxygen-rich green spaces to the modern city. 

Photo by Janus Clemmensen on Unsplash

While these treasured parks make a huge difference to one’s quality of life, “truly” clean air is hard to find in many cities around the world. In a recent study across Europe’s two megacities, Paris and London, researchers found the cities still failed to meet the air quality standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Therefore, it is encouraging to see that France, which is currently hosting the G7 Presidency, has made environment, biodiversity and climate change a top priority for this year’s summit. 

Poor air quality has become one of the most pressing public health concerns of our time. The WHO estimates that nine out of ten people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. 

Photo by Viktor Kiryanov on Unsplash

Air pollution: the risk to human health and the planet

Many of the world’s megacities exceed the WHO’s guidelines for air quality by more than five times. Ambient and household air pollution are together responsible for one in nine deaths. Air pollution is among the leading causes of death globally, attributing more than twice the deaths from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.    

But what does air pollution have to do with climate change, a crisis more commonly associated with melting ice caps or extreme weather events? Air pollution is where localised environmental concerns and public health policy intersect most clearly with the global climate challenge. The key link lies in short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) found in the air, like methane and black carbon. 

SLCPs account for 85% of airborne particulate pollution and are a leading cause of many non-communicable diseases. They also impact the climate. Although they remain in the atmosphere for less time than CO2, they are over 20 times more potent than a greenhouse gas. If we can eliminate SLCPs, we can improve human health and climate health. 

BreatheLife combines public health and climate change expertise with guidance on implementing solutions to air pollution in support of global development goals
Graphic: BreathLife

At Johnson & Johnson (J&J), we believe the link between air pollution, climate change and human health may help galvanise greater support for ambitious measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By leveraging health as a motivator and increasing focus on improving local air quality, individual communities and policymakers may be inspired to take more action to reduce greenhouse gases and improve overall environmental health. 

New Coalitions

As the OECD Forum 2019 agenda highlights, the interconnected and fast-changing nature of our globalised world demands a new kind of leadership on climate change and sustainable growth. For the Paris Agreement targets and the UN Sustainable Development Goals to become reality, new models of co-operation between corporate citizens, governments, local leaders, nonprofits and civil society must emerge.  

We have long participated in coalitions that promote a low-carbon economy and mitigate climate change, such as the World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Savers Program and The Climate Group’s RE100 program. We also joined the We Are Still In initiative, a coalition of organisations committed to taking actions in support of the Paris Climate Agreement. Additionally, we are a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, which seeks to address climate issues through a carbon dividends framework. 

While these collaborations are vitally important, we need even more coalitions built on common ground to create change at the pace and scale needed to stem the trajectory of climate change. The desire for good health is universal and can bring unlikely partners together. This is where coalitions, at the intersection of human health and environmental health, can add value to the climate conversation. 

The C40 Cities initiative is one example of how a new kind of multi-stakeholder coalition, including a private company, an NGO and city mayors can drive change at this intersection. With over half of the world’s population living in cities, mayors and city officials are on the frontlines of protecting citizens from real-world air pollution and climate impacts. J&J supports C40 Cities, including helping to build the evidence base for city-level policies, which recognizes the co-benefits of climate measures that improve air quality and human health. 

C40’s latest research report Toward a Healthier World, co-sponsored by J&J, identifies a set of priority actions that cities can take to tackle climate change and air pollution simultaneously. The research shows that if C40’s 94-member cities take the ambitious actions identified in the transport, building and industry sectors, in combination with a decarbonised power grid, there would be an 87% reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, a 49% reduction in fine particulate matter, 223,000 fewer premature deaths, and up to USD 583 billion in economic benefit. Cities like Paris are taking the lead, with a vision and roadmap for establishing a Fossil-Free Zone by 2030. 

Photo by Karsten Würth (@karsten.wuerth) on Unsplash

At J&J, we are committed to using our global reach and expertise to help change the trajectory of health for humanity. And when it comes to the urgency of addressing climate change for the sake of human health and environmental health, the stakes are high. As the Lancet reported, ignoring environmental risk factors “threatens to undermine the last half century of gains in development and global health”. 

The time has come for a different, more holistic dialogue on climate health. With health as a unifier, we can motivate more people to care for the planet, like our health depends on it – because it does. 

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Related Topics 

Sustainable Development Goals OECD Forum 2019

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Go to the profile of Stephen Palmer
over 4 years ago

This is such an important issue.