More than One-Third of Countries Lack Enforceable Air Quality Standards – UN Environment Programme Calls for Reform

air quality

Over a third of the world’s countries – 37% – have either not created or are not enforcing legally mandated ambient air quality standards (AAQS), according to a new report released by the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, “First Global Assessment of Air Pollution Legislation” assesses national air quality legislation in 194 states and the European Union, and found  persistent policy, capacity, and implementation gaps to prevent more effective action against air pollution.

Approximately 60% of countries, accounting for 1.3 billion people, have no annual ground-based monitoring for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), while at least 31% of countries with the ability to introduce sub-standards for ambient air quality standards (AAQS) have not done so. 

Unregulated air pollution continues to pose the greatest environmental threat to health. There are over seven million premature deaths every year due to the combined effects of outdoor and household air pollution – with millions more people falling ill from breathing polluted air, according to the WHO. More than half of these deaths are recorded in low- and middle-income countries.

UNEP calls for multi-sectoral action, in light of the report’s launch coinciding with International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, that can enable cleaner air for all. 

“Investments in air quality will [not only] enhance our health, but also job creation, energy efficiency, clean transport, sustainable agriculture, and green and resilient cities,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen, during a Tuesday launch event of the report. 

“We can’t clean the air overnight, and we can’t clean the air without the full engagement of every sector of society. But if we put the work in today, we can one day soon breathe easier.”

‘Lack of ambition’ in heterogeneous approach to air quality control

Eloise Scotford, one of the co-authors of the UNEP report

While the majority of countries (64%) embed AAQS in legislation, the global picture of national air quality is one of heterogeneity, with some cases of implementation masking a “lack of ambition”, said Eloise Scotford, Professor of Environmental Law at the University College London and one of the co-authors of the study.

Poor enforcement of air quality laws has led to 43% of countries lacking a legal definition of air pollution and only 51% of national air quality laws globally with explicit public health, or public and ecosystem health as their main objective.

“We found that processes for setting AAQS are often not transparent, or accountable, or accessible,” said Scotford, noting that standards could often be made more ambitious.

Although the heterogeneous approach to embedding air quality standards reflects specific air quality challenges and diverse legal cultures, in addition to acknowledging that there is no one-size fits-all approach to air quality control, this also risks masking weak ambition and legalizing unclean air.

In addition, only 33% of countries impose requirements on governments to achieve AAQS, indicating that the institutional responsibility on air pollution is quite weak and are the bare legal standards, added Scotford. 

The lack of level playing field for AAQS may keep the world at odds with the demanding requisites on global policies on climate change expressed in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Legal standards need to be established

Figure 1 is a conceptual map explaining how legislative incorporation of AQS may sit within, and provide the foundation for a domestic “system of air quality governance”.

Regulating and controlling the different sources of air pollution remains a “coordination challenge”, according to Scotford, with the first step establishing legal standards for air quality. 

“Once you have legal standards for air quality, that’s really important. Ambition is important. But that is not enough. More needs to be done to have a full system of quality governance that is robust, to ensure the achievement of clean air.” 

The UNEP report notes that a robust system of air quality governance is one which: 

  • requires governments to develop and regularly review applicable air quality standards in light of public health objectives;
  • determines institutional responsibility for those standards;
  • monitors compliance with air quality standards;
  • defines consequences for failure to meet them;
  • supports the implementation of air quality standards with appropriate and coordinated air quality plans, regulatory measures and administrative capacity;
  • is transparent and participatory.

WHO air quality guidelines launching end of the month

Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health

In light of the launch of the UNEP report, WHO has announced that they will be launching their 2021 Air Quality Guidelines on 22 September.

These guidelines will serve as a global target for national, regional, and city governments to work towards reducing air pollution. 

WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health Maria Neira echoed UNEP’s calls for urgent and collective action in reducing air pollution.   

“It is time to stop with those fossil fuels. It is time to accelerate towards a very ambitious and quick transition to clean sources of energy. We need to do it for the economy, we need to do it for our society, but we also need to do it for our health. The more we postpone this transition, the more we will have death and disease on our shoulders.”

Image Credits: Flickr, UNEP, UNEP.

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