By Yi Ren, UNA-NCA Programme Assistant
On February 9, the UN Environment Programme’s North America Office held a half-day event entitled Towards the UN Environment Assembly: Combating Global Pollution, addressing actions being taken to combat pollution at the national, state and local levels, as well as the impact of pollution on human health and the environment.
Ibrahim Thiaw, Deputy Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme delivered the keynote address and highlighted that more than a quarter of annual global deaths are attributed to environmental degradation. Air pollution is a significant factor and 7 million people die from it each year, and the damage extends beyond individuals’ health to economic development in developing countries. For example, a large number of factories and construction sites in Beijing are forced to shut down temporarily in order to reduce the pollution, and the airport in Dubai has to close for days because of poor visibility. This puts employees out of work and temporarily hinders the local economy. The implications of pollution are widely agreed upon and Thiaw emphasized the importance of clean energy as a solution.
Pollution has other profound implications on our safety and social aspects of life as well. Fortunately, these observations (of impact on health, safety, economic development) are agreed upon broadly and the appropriate actions can be taken. On the topic of energy, clean energy can help us reduce pollution, including solar energy. He took Africa as an example. Currently, three fourths of Africans do not have access to reliable energy but it is anticipated that this will change at the end of this century. Instead of traditional energy sources like coal, if clean energy like solar can be provided with a lower price with the help of technology development, the air pollution situation in Beijing and Delhi today would not be repeated in Nairobi, Lagos or other African cities in the future.
Two enlightening panel discussions followed, composed of distinguished representatives from government, civil society and the private sector. The first panel, entitled The Impact of Pollution on Human Health and the Environment, consisted of Tommy Wells, Director of D.C. Department of Energy and Environment; Radha Muthiah, CEO of Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves; and Terry Yosie, President and CEO of the World Environment Center. Tommy Wells talked about managing polluted rivers, which is a universal problem. He believes that a strong public–private partnership is an effective way to clean up contaminated water. Radha Muthiah illustrated that indoor pollution, in the form of smoke from burning traditional energy, causes a variety of diseases and is not only a rural problem but also an urban one. She said that indoor pollution is closely correlated to outdoor pollution with as much as 30 percent of outdoor pollution in India coming from indoor pollution such as cooking and heating. Terry Yosie pointed out that combating global pollution should be linked to sustainable development more closely and that the private sector could play an essential role in reducing pollution globally.
The second panel discussion focused on Addressing Pollution at the International, Federal, State and Local Levels. Panelists included John Matuszak, Senior Policy Advisor of U.S. Department of State; Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, Executive Director of the Environmental Council of States; and Elgie Holstein, Senior Director for Strategic Planning of the Environmental Defense Fund. They discussed the truly universal nature of environmental pollution as a global issue. Tackling this problem and reducing the implications of pollution require global efforts from the local to international levels.
The event ended with the election of the North American Regional Major Groups and Stakeholders Representative, who will share the civil society perspective at the third session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-3). UNEA-3 will convene environmental leaders in Nairobi, Kenya in December 2017 to address the serious global pollution threat.