On World Environment Day, world turns spotlight on air pollution

Governments, industry, communities and individuals around the world today commemorated World Environment Day, the United Nations’ biggest annual event for positive environmental action, encouraging worldwide awareness and commitment to protect our planet.

This year’s celebrations, held under the theme ‘Beat Air Pollution’, called upon people to explore renewable energy and green technologies, and improve air quality in cities and regions across the world. More than 6 billion people – one-third of them children – regularly breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and well-being at risk.

Spearheaded by China, official host of the global World Environment Day celebrations, UN Environment’s campaign to #BeatAirPollution culminated into a record number of registered events and commitments.

“Protecting our blue skies may be difficult, but our future relies on it,” Joyce Msuya, acting Executive Director of UN Environment, said during the global celebrations in Hangzhou. “And they are our blue skies. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Beijing or Beirut, when we look up we see the same sky. And I think when we look to China, we see many examples of how to protect it.”

Over the past decade, the Chinese government has taken drastic measures to limit air pollution in its biggest cities, bringing back blue skies in Beijing, Shanghai and other megacities, benefitting the health of millions.

By implementing far-reaching measures at the national- and state-level government, such as 100 per cent electric public transportation, curtailing outputs from factories and allocating more than US$10 billion to address air quality, several cities saw the concentration of PM 2.5 drop dramatically.

The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, conveyed his congratulations on the occasion of World Environment Day, saying, “Humankind only has one planet. Environmental conservation and sustainable development are the common responsibility of all countries. Ecological civilization is built into China’s national development architecture and strategy. China will work with any and all to implement the 2030 agenda to protect our only planet.”

A global call for action

In the weeks leading up to World Environment Day, photos and videos of people on every continent covering the lower half of their faces with masks, scarfs, their hands or even flowers, food, and clothing flooded social media channels.

Each image, accompanied by the hashtag #BeatAirPollution, came with a call for global action and a personal pledge to make individual lifestyle changes to reduce air pollution such as swapping car rides for bike rides, reducing meat intake or powering down electronic equipment when not in use.

“Today, we face an equally urgent crisis. It is time to act decisively,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his official message for World Environment Day. “My message to governments is clear: tax pollution; end fossil fuel subsidies; and stop building new coal plants. We need a green economy not a grey economy.”

Events around the world

Air pollution goes to the heart of social justice and global inequality. According to the World Health Organization, 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines. That percentage falls to 49 in high-income countries.

World Environment Day events on every continent drew attention to this issue, and united communities against a global health threat that affects individuals, indiscriminate of age, religion or nationality.

Europe

In Europe, celebrations kicked off with the launch of the report ‘Air Pollution and Human Health: The Case of the Western Balkans‘ in Sarajevo, accompanied by the presentation of the ‘Sarajevo Air’ app, that helps citizens avoid polluted areas while walking or cycling. The Celebrations on the continent further included a kids marathon in Kazakhstan and an eco-trail run in Geneva, the Festival de l’environnement in Brussels and the launch of a World Environment Day themed song.

Africa

Being first and foremost a celebration of environmental beauty, Kenya marked World Environment Day with a fashion show featuring striking pieces from local eco-conscious designers. A bike ride through the center of the capital, Nairobi, was followed by the official celebrations, which included a ceremonial tree planting exercise, cultural performances and art exhibitions.

A number of African countries – South Africa, Rwanda, Morocco, Tanzania, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Algeria – also commemorated the day with official events.

West Asia

Across the Middle Eastern nations of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, youth-led flashmobsdrew attention to the issue of air pollution right before the start of the Eid-Al Fitr festivities. Celebrations in Bahrain started on the 3rd of June with the planting of 150 Neem trees, and a mass cycling event in partnership with the Embassy of India in Bahrain.

North America

In North America, rock fan favorites Dave Matthews Band were designated as UN Environment Goodwill Ambassadors for their efforts in reducing the environmental footprints of their tours. Over the past 15 years and 578 concerts, the band – together with partner REVERB – has avoided 55,000,000 kg of CO2 and 478,000 single-use plastic bottles.

In New York, climate, health and building experts discussed air pollution as a global health emergency and a leading environmental threat to the city, while almost 90 third grade students at the School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness in Brooklyn gathered to compose “Love Letters to the Air,” an arts-integrated, creative letter-writing project that promotes positive change for our planet.

Latin America and the Caribbean
In Ecuador, regional host of World Environment Day, young people planted 1,000 native trees minutes from the crater of the Pululahua, one of the few inhabited volcanoes in the planet. In Haiti and Mexico, UN Environment hosted film festivals on the environment. The Mexican state of Guanajuato saw further celebrations, including a nighttime bike ride.

Cycling was also on the agenda in Peru, where a massive bike ride was organized in the capital, Lima, to commemorate World environment Day. In Brazil, 10 states organized bike rides over the course of a week, while the city of São Paolo formally launched the implementation of a national network for air quality monitors.

Asia and the Pacific

Celebrations in host country China commenced with a visit to Anji county, near Hangzhou, where President Xi Jinping famously declared that “green is gold”. Here, the Champions of the Earth-winning Zhejiang Rural Revival Programme had transformed a former mining and industrial wasteland into a prosperous region and healthy landscape. A delegation from UN Environment visited a county court, where the judiciary is making innovative strides in environmental justice, including allowing cases to be opened and mediated by mobile phone.

Nearby Nanjing then showcased Zhejiang province’s futuristic environmental monitoring centre during a visit the following day.

Global host city Hangzhou demonstrated its own environmental advancements, including the city’selectric buses, which now constitute 70 per cent of the bus fleet. Visiting the Xixi Wetland Park, the delegation saw the results of the rejuvenation of a wetland area, which has brought back hundreds of bird, plant and insect species to the area.

During the main celebrations on June 5th, China’s Vice Premier Han Zheng conveyed a message from President Xi, reiterating China’s commitment to beat air pollution and willingness to share China’s experiences and practices with other countries. Other senior Chinese officials, including Environment Minister Li Ganjie and Zhejiang Party Secretary Che Jun also reiterated China’s commitment to the environment and global cooperation on climate change. Senior UN Environment representation and other delegates then together presented China’s Ecological Civilization and volunteer awards to winners.

Other World Environment Day celebrations in Asia and the Pacific took place in Myanmar, where the President launched the country’s environmental and climate change policies, India, where the Agra government announced their clean air plan and Thailand, where events attended by the Governor of Bangkok and top officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment saw musical performances, activities and panel discussions on air pollution.

BreatheLife commitments

Nine governments at the national and municipal level made commitments to bring air quality to safe levels by 2030, by joining the BreatheLife campaign, a joint initiative by UN Environment, the World Health Organization, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the World Bank.

By committing to BreatheLife, Bogotá (Colombia), Lalitpur and Kathmandu (Nepal), Honduras, Bogor City (Indonesia), the Republic of Moldova, Monaco, Montevideo (Uruguay) and Mexico demonstrate their dedication to collaborate on the clean air solutions that will help us get to a World Free of Air Pollution faster. The new commitments bring the number of cities, regions and countries in the BreatheLife network to 63, representing 271.4 million citizens around the world.

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