Blue skies ahead? Why cooperation between science and policy is the key to reducing air pollution

Air pollution in Thailand, (Clean Air for Blue Skies)

Blue skies over Delhi and clear waters in the Venice canal: Covid-19's silver lining was to provide a small glimpse of the changes possible if drastic action is taken to reduce global emissions. Last week, the United Nations organized last week its first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies aimed to raise awareness of air pollution and to called on countries to work together to clean up the skies - and the planet - for future generations.

Anna Engleryd, chair of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) air convention executive body and a senior policy adviser at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, speaks to Geneva Solutions about the link between air pollution and climate change, and her hopes for the future.

Geneva Solutions: Could you explain the links between air pollution and climate change, and why tackling one problem helps solve the other?

Anna Engleryd – Air pollutants and climate gases often stem from the same sources, which means that air quality and climate policies and measures can provide mutual benefits when, for example, targeted towards reduction of fossil fuel use or increased energy efficiency.

But there are also trade-offs. The use of biomass as a substitute for fossil fuels leads to emissions of particulate matter (PM), and some technical air pollution emission controls like flue-gas desulfurization [a set of technologies used to remove sulfur dioxide from exhaust flue gases of fossil-fuel power plants] can increase CO2 emissions. Reducing air pollution and mitigating climate change are increasingly being approached in a more integrated way in order to take advantage of the co-benefits and avoid the trade-offs.

Outdoor air pollution has reached extreme levels in some regions around the world and is inflicting silent suffering on a massive scale. What solutions would be the most effective to reverse the situation decisively?

To solve the problem, action is needed on many scales. Air pollutants in cities originate from local, national and international sources. Concentrations come from local sources like traffic and residential heating as well as from regional sources like agricultural areas quite far away. In addition to this, some air pollutants like particulate matter and ozone have a continental and even transcontinental aspect. Therefore, multiscale action is needed.

What are the key successes and lessons learned from UNECE's Air convention, and what are its biggest challenges for the period to come?

Actions under the UNECE Air Convention have led to substantial reductions in emissions of many pollutants, which have resulted in positive effects on ecosystems, human health and in a virtual solution of the acid rain problem, which was one of the main reasons for the formation of the Convention back in 1979. We see ecosystem recovery and fish coming back in rivers and lakes where they were almost extinct.

One of the most important keys to success is the close cooperation between science and policy we have and have always had in the Convention. We have a large scientific network under the Convention which continuously interacts and communicates with the policymakers, giving legitimacy to the policy decisions. Our policy making is what we call 'science based'.

However, despite a significantly improved situation over the last 30 years, problems still remain, especially concerning the health effects from particulate matter and ground level ozone, and the wider ecosystem issues around excess nutrient nitrogen. There is a continuing need for concerted action as well as increased cooperation in a global context to clean up the air.

Regarding climate and air pollution, what are your reasons to hope?

There are challenges, but there are also solutions available, and we have with the Air Convention an established and well-functioning international science-policy network able to deal with those challenges.

Furthermore, the ongoing pandemic has shown us that we are capable of rapid change if needed. I hope that many of the lessons learned during the last 6 months will help us to build back a more climate-friendly and environmentally-friendly society and way of living.

You can read an in-depth analysis of global action for climate here.