28 May 2015

Governments Recognize Air Pollution’s Threat to Human Health

World Health Assembly’s Air Pollution Resolution is a Small First Step

The world’s governments took an important step forward in recognizing air pollution as a major threat to human health, by issuing a resolution at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this week. The resolution mandates greater engagement by the World Health Organization to address a problem responsible for one out of eight deaths worldwide.

The passage of this resolution marks a significant milestone in the global consensus among health leaders that air pollution has serious and costly health consequences, and therefore requires urgent action on the part of the health sector worldwide. It follows the WHO’s finding that air pollution exposure caused 7 million premature deaths in 2012, more than twice the death toll from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

At the same time however, governments at the World Health Assembly were unwilling or unable to address the single most significant source of both outdoor air pollution and climate change: society’s dependence on fossil fuels, particularly the combustion of coal for energy generation.

“The resolution is an important step forward in that it will raise consciousness in the health sector and empower WHO to more robustly address the problem,” said Josh Karliner, Director of Global Projects at Health Care Without Harm. “But it is only a small step at a time when we urgently need to take a giant leap to protect public health from both air pollution and climate change.”

The magnitude and urgency of the problem continues to far outweigh the scale of the action. Earlier this month, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report found that “subsidies,” or societal costs of fossil fuels worldwide surpassed all health spending globally, amounting to U.S. $5.3 trillion, or 6.5% of global GDP. The IMF found that ending these subsidies would slash the number of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution by 55%, or about 1.6 million lives a year. Moving away from coal, they found, would account for a 93% share of this reduction.

Coal also accounts for one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, so a transition away from coal would also protect public health from climate change. Yet the health benefits of transitioning from fossil fuels were not mentioned in the resolution.

“Solar and wind power are increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels in today’s economy,” said Karliner. “When you take the health costs and benefits of different energy choices into account, clean, renewable energy emerges the winner, hands down.”

A year from now, WHO plans to propose a roadmap for an enhanced global health sector response to address the adverse health effects of air pollution.

“We hope that the WHO roadmap can help chart a global transition away from fossil fuels and towards clean, healthy renewable energy,” said Dr. Renzo Guinto, Healthy Energy Initiative for Health Care Without Harm Asia.

“The global health community has created an impressive Global Fund to deal with HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB,” said Dr. Guinto, “it needs to generate similar ambition to address the causes and consequences of air pollution.” 

Media Inquiries

For US inquiries, contact: Benn Grover, bgrover@hcwh.org

For all other inquiries, contact: Alejandra Livschitz, alejandra@hcwh.org

About the Healthy Energy Initiative

The Healthy Energy Initiative, a program of Health Care Without Harm, is a global network of health professionals, academics, and organizations calling for a shift from coal and other fossil fuels, to clean, renewable, healthy energy. For more on the Healthy Energy Initiative’s response to the World Health Assembly air pollution resolution, visit www.healthyenergyinitiative.org

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About Health Care Without Harm

Health Care Without Harm works to transform the health sector worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it becomes ecologically sustainable and a leading advocate for environmental health and justice.

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