More than 80 percent of people living in world cities are exposed to air pollution levels that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) limits, a damning report says.
The report indicates that air pollution kills seven million people annually and that the situation could become worse as global air quality declines, if urgent measures are not employed to reverse the trend.
For instance in Nairobi, and other East African cities, the report by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says residents are inhaling highly polluted air that threatens lives, affects people’s productivity and hinders economic growth.
The report says growing economies in the 21st Century have actually begun killing a huge number of their own people in the name of development.
This arises from industrial gas emissions, congestions of vehicles and motorbikes in city’s chaotic public transport and farm activities.
Congestion of motor vehicles, burning of municipal waste and agricultural residues among main culprits
Other leading causes of air pollution are open burning of municipal waste and agricultural residues, coal-fired power plants and indoor pollution brought about by cooking and heating with solid fuels such as coal, wood and crop waste.
According to findings released earlier last week during the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 2), global urban air pollution levels increased by eight per cent between 2008 and 2013.
“The air in Nairobi is poisonous and cause serious ailments including heart and lung diseases as well as cancer. The amount of cancer-causing elements in the air within the city is eight times
higher than the threshold recommended by the WHO,” the report reads.
Out of the seven million deaths linked to air pollution annually, 4.3 million are attributable to indoor air pollution particularly young women and children exposed to sustained use of inefficient cooking methods.
“More than 50 percent of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under the age of five are caused by the particulate matter inhaled from household air pollution,” the UNEP report reads.
One out of five premature deaths that occur every day globally caused by preventable human activities
If WHO statistics cited in the report are anything to go by, one out of five premature deaths that occur every day, every month, every year, on our planet are actually caused by preventable human activities.
However, the report titled Actions on Air Quality, found improvements in areas such as access to cleaner cooking fuels and stoves, renewables, fuel sulphur content and public transport – pointing to a growing momentum for change.
It praises Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda for using low-sulphur fuels in their motor vehicles from January 2015 but urges more action to adopt electric cars and motorcycles.
United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director, Achim Steiner, said, “A healthy environment is essential to healthy people and our aspirations for a better world under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
“We are indeed making progress on air pollution, but the fact remains that many people are still breathing air outside of World Health Organization standards. The health, social and economic costs are massive and rising” Mr Steiner said while launching the report.
Mr Steiner pointed that UNEP’s study on ten areas for policy intervention provides a roadmap for countries to follow as they look to reduce air pollution, and we will support them every step of the way.
UNEP has launched several programmes to track and address pollution hotspots
He said UNEP has launched several programmes, including an initiative to develop a low-cost sensor that can be used across the developing world to track and address pollution hotspots.
Mr Steiner compared failure by governments to address the causes of air pollution and environmental degradation in general, to the premeditated killing of one by another.
“I may be harsh or technically inaccurate but it is criminal to sit passively by and do nothing with the information that seven million people die annually as a result of air pollution” said the outgoing UNEP boss.
“That is in judicial terms sometimes called manslaughter or murder… I don’t want to go into the legal end of it but if you know that something is killing somebody else and you continue doing it, then this is an act that is deliberate” he said.
Mr Steiner warned that Nairobi would be as polluted as Beijing in ten years if concrete policies are not put in place to contain air pollution.
Despite the bleak figures, Mr Steiner is optimistic that given the right action, the tide can change by putting in place national air quality standards and policies, and reforming public transport.
Wider roads, he argues, are a short-sighted solution to the traffic problem as the number of cars in most countries double on average every seven to eight years.
“It is actually one of the ironies that Africa’s mobility is very much premised on public transport today but the proportion of people who are travelling through public transport is declining while private mobility is increasingly becoming a more prominent feature.
“The boda boda revolution we’re seeing is attributable to the price of motorcycles coming down significantly but what stops governments in Africa from saying we should have electric motorcycles in urban areas because in China, Indonesia electric motorcycles are being sold in
their millions at the same cost as a normal two-stroke engine” he said.
The emergence of ‘boda bodas’ (motorcycle taxis), he adds, is proof that there is a need among the majority of Kenyans, who fall in the lower income brackets, for reliable means of transportation.