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World Health Assembly Backs Calls to Strengthen Clean Air SDGs


India pollution JOHN HASLAM/FLICKR
The new development goals could more emphatically include reducing air pollution now that a UN agency has drawn concerted attention to pollution’s health risks. Smog levels in India, above, are among the highest in the world. JOHN HASLAM/FLICKR

Negotiations are entering the last stages of formulating the Sustainable Development Goals. For over a year, governments, the United Nations system, nongovernment organizations and parliamentarians have been engaged in negotiations on the next set of development goals, called SDGs, to succeed the eight Millennium Development Goals, which expire at the end of this year.

The resulting 17 draft goals add sustainability, accountability and inclusion aspects to the new post-2015 development agenda. Key items, like clean water, have gotten major traction through the negotiating process on the goals as well as new elements on rule of law.

What is crucially missing as a first-order norm is clean air and clearly agreed targets, so far, for reducing ambient air pollution, the easiest-to-measure sustainability parameter.

But recently, the World Health Assembly, the 193-member governing body of the World Health Organization, for the first time in its history approved a resolution on air pollution — what the agency calls the globe’s single-largest environmental health risk. Passage of this landmark resolution should now give stronger traction to the air-quality targets and indicators sputtering now in the development negotiations.

A full review of the revised basic draft on the SDGs was done by Global Parliamentary Services, a legislative consultancy. The review found that through July 2014, air quality was missing from the zero draft of the open working group on negotiations.

Ambient air quality is the easiest measurable target for managing the goal of “sustainable” cities, where more than five billion people — 60 percent of the world population — will be living by 2030. Poor air quality increases respiratory diseases among children and the elderly, days of work lost by parents, particularly mothers, and increased public and private health-care costs. The WHO says that both indoor and ambient air pollution are responsible for eight million deaths annually.

Between July 2014 and November 2014, concerted advocacy by an array of activists led to the words “air quality” being added to an SDG subgoal, 11.6. Agreed-on baseline air-quality indicators for 2015 and air-quality targets for 2030 are still in discussion. Getting the right air-quality indicators should be easy, as the international community has an agreed set of guidelines for air quality, set by WHO, which also publishes a regular survey of air pollution in cities around the world.

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This work is led by a cautious but persistent physician, Dr. María Neira, director of the Public Health and Environment Division of the World Health Organization and a former vice minister for health in Spain.

“We started on air quality more than 12 years ago,” Dr. Neira said in an interview with PassBlue. “WHO’s first guidelines were published in 2004 — the guidelines give standards for the most dangerous pollutants.” The WHO database is generated from about 2,000 cities worldwide.

“Since not all cities in the world collect such data,” Dr. Neira said, “we simulate using ground level data, satellite information, mathematical models as contaminated matter travels by air.”

Dr. María Neira
Dr. María Neira, a public health and environment expert for WHO.

Dr. Neira’s division has also been producing studies showing the economic cost of inaction as a relevant tool for government and city officials and policymakers.

Air pollution remains the single-largest environmental health risk globally. Europe’s 2015 State of the Environment report confirms that urban air pollution will become the main environmental cause of premature mortality in 2050, and 75 percent of Europeans live in or around cities, a number that is projected to increase.

Génon K. Jensen, the executive director of the Health and Environment Alliance (Heal), a Brussels-based nonprofit group focused on health and the environment in Europe, underscored that the WHO resolution would save lives, up to 430,000 early deaths in Europe alone. Reducing air pollution in urban areas could have a transformative effect on cutting respiratory diseases.

Tackling air pollution will have enormous economic benefits for health-care systems as well. In April, the World Health Organization released a new economic study highlighting the costs of air pollution for 53 countries in the European region. According to the study, the approximately 600,000 premature deaths and diseases caused by air pollution totaled an economic cost of $1.6 trillion in 2010.

The World Health Assembly’s resolution on air pollution was introduced by Albania, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Monaco, Norway, Panama, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United States, Uruguay and Zambia. Asian countries whose cities are choking from air pollution were not among the sponsors, but the resolution was adopted as is; and the Assembly has now empowered the World Health Organization with a new commitment of resources and support from member states to take action against air pollution.

As a result of the resolution, the organization should be able to move to the forefront of ensuring strong indicators for air pollution in the SDG on health, as well as in other goals. Air quality is a measure of sustainability across several other goals — sustainable cities, sustainable agriculture and clean energy, among others.

Officials managing the negotiating process on the development goals at the UN are anxious, however, to tie down loose ends and finish the job quickly. Amina J. Mohammed, the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on post-2015 development planning, leads this work.

“Before the Open Working Group, we had started to shape that agenda as we needed to get down from 500 issues and targets,” she said, adding that the group “knocked up against sexual reproductive rights, LGBT rights, where we had to hold the line at Conventions already agreed by member states.”

No more goals can be added now, Mohammed said. “Existing challenges that haven’t been resolved, can be made clearer, such as the means of implementation, financing technical capacities, ODA [official development assistance] targeted timelines. Member states are very clear that these [goals] remain at 17. . . . “

“It’s not a neat number, package, but the world isn’t either,” added Mohammed, with her characteristic finality.

There was some effort made to tighten parameters on the goals, including air-quality indicators, during the discussions of the UN Statistical Commission, an advisory body. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a UN-linked entity focused on scientific and technical work for the SDGs, had put forward air-quality indicators in several goals, including 9 (on infrastructure) and 11 (on cities), but they are now relegated to just the health goal, No. 3.

The mantle now belongs to the World Health Organization to ensure that the UN’s lofty aims in its citizen-survey campaign on developing the sustainable goals, called “The World We Want,” includes a world in which we can all breathe easily.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Shazia Z. Rafi was Secretary-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action from 1996-2013 and the first woman on the ballot and runner-up finalist for the Inter-Parliamentary Union Secretary-General election. She is the president of a nonprofit group helping national legislatures to improve air quality in Asia:

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she graduated from Bryn Mawr College and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Rafi is a Women’s Media Center SheSource expert on international security, international law, women’s rights and the environment. She lives in New York City and her website is (

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