During my time at COP22 last week, it became clear to me that we need actions that are not only substantial in impact, but that can also be measurably felt by families and communities -- now. This is where political and social momentum can be harnessed, and spur further progress. It is where change can be felt, immediately and on a daily basis, both in terms of a better environment, as well as a better quality of life. Actions that reduce air pollution in cities offer tremendous potential.
Air pollution is as widespread as it is dangerous. Almost 2 billion children live in areas that exceed international guidelines. Around 300 million children reside in the worst affected areas with levels exceeding international guidelines by at least six times. According to the World Health Organization, around 127,000 children under the age of 5 died in 2012 from diseases linked to outdoor air pollution.
Air pollution also makes children sick. It is linked with respiratory conditions that can be debilitating, such as asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia. This can prevent children from going to school, as well as outside to play and exercise. Recent studies also point to the effects it can have on a child's cognitive development. Children's lungs are developing, their brains are forming, and exposure to harmful toxicants have been shown to negatively affect those developmental processes, with potentially life-long impacts.
Last week, outdoor air pollution in Delhi hit record-highs. It caused hospital admissions to spike and schools to close, affecting millions of children. Within cities, the poorest children tend to be at greatest risk from air pollution because they often do not have access to healthcare that can treat the diseases and conditions associated with it. They also have least access to the means and resources to help prevent exposure, such as air filtration systems and purifiers.
However, poor air quality is not just a challenge for Delhi. From London to Lagos, and from Beijing to Paris, air pollution levels have exceeded international limits within the last year, in some places by considerable margin. Unless urgent action is taken to reduce air pollution, situations like that witnessed in Delhi are likely to become more common around the world.
The imperative to address air pollution is considerable for many reasons. One study shows that a handful of concrete actions that reduce a few major types of air pollution (such as black carbon, tropospheric ozone and methane) can help reduce global warming by as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. This is quite a substantial amount considering our goal is to limit global warming by well below 2°C (and ideally 1.5°C), as per the Paris Agreement.
Reducing air pollution can also be economically advantageous. A recent World Bank report claims that it costs the global economy up to $225 billion US dollars in lost labor income. That amount is more than one and a half times all foreign aid.
Cities will be key to addressing air pollution. Thousands of cities across the globe face high levels of outdoor air pollution. According to recent analysis by the World Health Organization, 80% of people that live in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to levels that exceeds guidelines. Moreover, urban populations are growing, fast. By mid-century, up to 66% of the global population is expected to live in cities.
Cities are already major actors in tackling climate change. Good public transportation, green infrastructure, high population density and strong demand for alternative sources of energy make cities a major driving force in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And cities do not do this without good reason: cities are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change - the vast majority of urban areas are located near the coast, where rising sea levels and storms pose significant risks.
Better urban planning can help prevent children's exposure to harmful air pollutants. Good quality public transport, for example, can help reduce fossil fuel emissions as well as improve safety for children within cities. Green space within a city can serve as an oasis of reprieve, as well as a place for children to play. Access to medical care across cities can help children get treatment for potentially life-threatening illnesses associated with air pollution. Finally, good monitoring at various locations within cities can help parents and children better plan their day so that exposure can be minimized.
As COP22 draws to a close, and the world looks for action on climate change, cities stand out as major change-makers. With the right policies and actions, they can be champions for the environment -- and children -- at the same time.