Urban air quality is getting worse, says UN. Can the trend be reversed?

A United Nations report has found that urban air quality is declining, but outlines ways communities can help reduce pollution.

Ric Francis/AP
Smog in Los Angeles

The air in cities is getting worse, according to a United Nations report, but there are ways individuals can help.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) indicates that, between 2008 and 2013, urban air pollution levels have risen by 8 percent. The report suggests necessary steps to support more renewable energies and clean cooking stoves to combat the issue.

According to the World Health Organization, seven million people a year die from air pollution, and more than half of those people die from indoor air pollution. Additionally, more than 80 percent of those who live in urban areas breathe air with pollution levels exceeding the WHO limits.

The responses to the poor global air quality have been mixed, however, as some communities are taking steps to change habits, while others have not.

“The current global response to pervasive poor air quality is inadequate,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director. “Despite this lack of a holistic response, numerous countries and regions are coming up with effective – and cost-effective – measures to improve air quality. The Sustainable Development Goals provide an opportunity to replicate those best practices globally, and bring about cleaner air, and social and economic benefits worldwide.”

At the Second United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, the newly released report delineated steps that are being taken to improve air quality, such as increasing access to public transportation, reducing fuel sulphur content, promoting cleaner cooking stoves and fuels, and switching to renewable energy resources. To combat indoor air pollution, 97 countries have increased the number of households that have access to cleaner burning fuels to more than 85 percent.

Out of 193 countries that were analyzed, 82 of them have efforts underway to invest in cleaner and renewable energy production, pollution controls, and energy-efficient equipment. According to research by the UNEP, Bloomberg, and the Frankfurt School UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate, the year 2013 was the first time ever that renewable energy resources accounted for most of the new electricity projects and a global investment totaling $286 billion.

The report also cautioned, though, that other efforts were less effective and would do little to reverse the declining air quality. Only 29 percent of all countries worldwide have adopted "Euro 4" standards for vehicle emissions, despite the fact that adherence to clean fuel and vehicle standards could reduce emissions by 90 percent. Open waste burning is also a huge factor in air pollution, as more than 80 percent of countries worldwide fail to regulate it.

To improve air quality through individual efforts, people can ride bikes, take public transportation, drive more slowly to reduce gas emissions, keep the water heater below 50 degrees celsius, set the thermostat no higher than 20 degrees celsius, use water-based paint, and compost instead of burning trash.

The United Nations refers to poor air quality as a "public health emergency." While the numbers may seem bleak, especially in countries such as China and Nepal, where both indoor and outdoor air quality may be poor, it is possible to turn the statistics around.

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