Public Health and Environment (PHE)

Reduce short-lived climate pollutants for health, development and climate co-benefits: COP 19 events focus on synergies

Fast action to reduce short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) could slow the rate of global warming while saving millions of lives over the next several decades from outdoor and indoor air pollution – which together now kill more than 6 million people a year.

Mark Edwards – Hard Rain Collection

The potential synergies, described by prominent climate scientists as “win-wins” for both developing and developed countries, were highlighted at a Health and Climate Change Summit that took place Saturday, 16 November, at this year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP-19), in Warsaw, Poland.

Short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon (soot) and methane are responsible for a substantial fraction of global warming. Black carbon is a major component of health-harming particulate emissions, which are an increasingly severe problem in many developing cities— although populations in higher income settings are also at risk.

Small and fine particulate pollution (PM10 & PM2.5) as well as ground-level and ozone (O3), are the key pollutants responsible for tens of millions of cases annually of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancers – with major cities around the world well exceeding World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines. Methane is a precursor in ground –level ozone formation . Along with causing direct health effects, ozone reduces agricultural productivity, important to food security; black carbon and other air pollutants have many other far-reaching impacts on ecosystems. (More about Air Pollution and Health: http://www.who.int/phe/health_topics/outdoorair/en/index.html)

Inefficient use and burning of biomass and fossil fuels in transport, housing, power production, waste disposal and industry cause most SLCP emissions – as part of overall air pollution. Since short-lived climate pollutants persist in the atmosphere for weeks or months while CO2 emissions persist for years, significant reductions of SLCP emissions could generate very rapid climate benefits – helping to reduce near-term climate change by as much as 0.5⁰ C before 2050.

Beyond the mitigation of the most health-harmful air pollutants, SLCP reduction would have multiple other near-term health and development benefits. Significantly reducing methane and black carbon emissions could avoid annual crop losses of over 30 million tons annually, according to recent estimates by the United Nations Environment Programme. Reducing SLCPs could also help moderate climate change impacts in many vulnerable regions -- such as elevated snow and ice-covered regions, where black carbon accelerates snow-melt. Finally, reducing black carbon emissions could help mitigate regional disruption of traditional rainfall patterns.

“Health sector actors need to engage more directly with sectors such as energy, transport and housing to reduce health-harming pollutants from key sources”, said Michal Krzyzanowski, visiting professor at King´s College, London, and a former Head of the World Health Organization’s European Centre for Environment and Health.

"If, besides addressing CO2 emissions to curb impacts on climate, we apply measures that address methane and black carbon, we magnify the benefits for climate, increase food security and, in addition, prevent a lot of deaths from air pollution,” said Krzyzanowski.

He noted that in Europe, as well as in many low-income regions, household heating and cooking, as well as transport, are among the largest sources of particulate pollution.

“We know air pollution is causing a significant burden on health, and energy production is an unfortunate contributor. Conversely, energy efficiency, cleaner technologies and fuels will also benefit health; we need to look at solutions.”

Coal combustion for power production is another major worldwide source of air pollution – and greenhouse gas emissions – and a problem for both developed regions and emerging economies, noted Julia Huscher Coal and Health Officer at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a co-sponsor of the Summit.

“The massive cost of air pollution from coal is an economic burden in Europe," Huscher said, noting that environmental and health costs from regional coal emissions amounted to some €43 billion per year.

Earlier this year, WHO joined the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC), comprised of 72 partners, including governments, international organizations and NGOs. The CCAC has a range of initiatives underway to reduce SLCPs, including: agricultural and solid waste methane emissions reduction and black carbon emissions from sources such as household biomass stoves and diesel vehicles.

Speaking at a high-level CCAC event in Oslo in September 2013, Hans Troedsson, Executive Director of WHO’s Director General's Office, lauded the new partnership between health and climate actors.

‘Interventions to reduce SLCPs can yield major health benefits and prevent child pneumonia as well as non-communicable diseases like heart and chronic lung disease,’ said Troedsson. SLCPs cause a particular burden on women and children in developing countries. A partnership between health, environment and other actors to reduce SLCPs, as facilitated by the Coalition, can bring synergies and enable multiple benefits for development, health and climate. Now that we are partners in the Coalition we welcome the opportunity to help expand the Coalition’s public health efforts.”

There is wide scientific agreement that actions to reduce SLCPs, however, must still be complemented by immediate deep and persistent cuts in carbon dioxide emissions if temperature increases over the 21st century are to be held below 2°C.

Along with Saturday’s Climate and Health summit, several other side events are highlighting air pollution, health and climate synergies. These include:

Short-lived climate forcers – the work of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC).
Side event at COP19
Monday, 18 November 2013
18:30-20:00
National Stadium, Gdansk Room
Organized by United Nations Environment Programme, the Government of Norway, and other CCAC partner countries

Health, Agriculture, and Climate Benefits of Reducing Short-Lived Climate Pollutants.
Side Event at COP19
Tuesday, 19 November 2013, 13:15—14:45
National Stadium, Torun Room
Organized by Colombia, Bellona Foundation, Earthjustice and Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD) in collaboration with the CCAC

Build Resilience and Reduce Climate Risks to support NAPS – with focus on Food Security and Health.
Tuesday, 19 November 2013
18:30-20:00
National Stadium, Wroclaw Room
Organized by the World Health Organization in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization, Convention on Biological Diversity, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)

For more information contact:

Elaine Fletcher, World Health Organization, Science Editor: fletchere{at}who.int Keith Collins, CCAC, Communications Officer: kscollins{at}gmail.com

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