Global treaty on air quality needed, says UNEP

Wildfires in the American West are creating hazy skies as far away as New York, 20 July 2021. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

There is “a case to be made” for a global treaty on ambient air quality standards, according to a new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report released on Thursday.

There are no legally-binding air quality standards in a third of the world’s countries. Among them are 31 per cent of those who have the “power” to set them, said UNEP.

The WHO has published guidelines for air quality standards, but these have no legal force. With 92 per cent of people in the world still breathing air that does not meet those standards, UNEP is calling for a global treaty “​​that supports universal public health goals and evolving human rights protections”, in its first global assessment of air pollution legislation.

A global treaty should have a “strong technical secretariat” such that standards remain informed by the latest scientific evidence, the report recommends. The treaty would set basic standards and increase knowledge sharing while allowing “differentiation” between countries.

Redress for deaths and illness caused by bad air is increasingly being sought in courts. In March, the European Court of Justice ruled against the UK for “systematically and persistently” exceeding the nitrogen dioxide limits set by the EU.

Those high levels of nitrogen dioxide killed nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in 2013. In December 2020, her death certificate was the first in the UK to list air pollution as the cause of death, after a lengthy inquest. The UK government said in June it will invest £6m (approximately CHF 7.57m) in local air clean-up efforts and is considering changes to the law in response to her case.

In Switzerland, over 4,000 people continue to die annually from air pollution, according to the European Environment Agency.

UNEP is working on practical guidance as part of the Montevideo Environmental Law Programme to help countries better tackle air pollution, and plans to offer technical support at a later stage.

“There will be no jab to prevent seven million premature deaths caused by air pollution each year, a number poised to grow by more than 50 per cent by 2050,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director, in a statement ahead of the report’s release. “The air we breathe is a fundamental public good, and governments must do more to ensure it is clean and safe.”