World Environment Day: air quality, an issue for the future

China is hosting celebrations for World Environment Day on 5th June. The theme for 2019 is air pollution and how to address it.

Every year since 1974, on the 5th of June, some 150 countries participate in World Environment Day, established by the UN. This year, the theme that we are being encouraged to reflect on is air pollution, which is responsible for over 8 million premature deaths worldwide each year. To address this critical issue, many member states are taking action to make our air more breathable. All these initiatives are giving cause for hope and challenging preconceived notions.


China on the front line

As mentioned above, China was chosen by the UN to organise celebrations for World Environment Day 2019. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Chinese leaders have taken a green turn, introducing a broad range of initiatives to limit air pollution and reduce the smog that smothers its cities, causing great concern to its population. Their work is beginning to pay off: in 2019, the average level of fine particles in Chinese cities is 39 micrograms per cubic metre of air. Admittedly, this figure is still high – almost double the world average – but it represents a sharp decrease (-9% in a year) for the second year running. Another encouraging development is that China now owns half the world’s fleet of electric vehicles and 99% of its electric buses!


Reforestation is gaining pace

Increasing forest coverage leads to the absorption of carbon, through photosynthesis, thereby reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. After decades of deforestation, many member states have become conscious of the stakes and initiated large-scale reforestation programmes. Today, China is the country that plants the most trees globally with its Great Green Wall reforestation project, which was launched in 1978. The aim: to reduce pollution and halt the onslaught of the Gobi desert by creating the largest artificial forest in the world. 33 million hectares have been planted in the last five years, notably in the province of Beijing. This Chinese programme inspired the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and Sahel, launched by eleven African states, who intend to create a corridor from Dakar (Senegal) to Djibouti. India, for its part, made a commitment to increase its forest coverage by 95 million hectares by 2030 under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, while Brazil has committed to reforesting 12 million hectares – almost the size of England – by 2030. This is a promising development for the greatly endangered Amazon forest, known as the lungs of the Earth.

92% of the world’s population does not breathe pure air
5,000 billion dollars per year is the estimated social cost of air pollution worldwide

Cycling motorways for healthier travel

Did you know? A driver stuck in traffic is more exposed to pollution than a cyclist. In fact, the polluted air that enters the vehicle tends to stagnate there. For an equivalent journey, cyclists are exposed to one-third fewer pollutants than drivers. With the surge of interest in electric bicycles, cycling motorways are increasingly seen as a good way of relieving congestion in large cities and reducing CO2 emissions, while being a quick and healthy travel option for users. The concept originated in the Netherlands in 1998 and was quickly adopted by the bike-loving Northern European countries before spreading to the rest of the world over the last few years. China, once again, is well and truly on board: after Beijing and Xiamen, the cities of Guangzhou and Chengdu will soon have their own express cycle lanes.

Aiming for 100% renewable energy

Portugal has done it! In March 2018, for the first time, the country produced more renewable energy than it needs to cover its electricity consumption: 103.6% of its energy needs were fulfilled by wind and hydro power. The same feat was previously achieved by the Spanish island of El Hierro, located in the Canary archipelago, the first island in the world to become 100% self-sufficient with the use of renewable energy sources. Its hydro-wind plant has been supplying its 11,000 inhabitants since 2015. And as for New Zealand, the country has recently banned all oil and gas production in its territorial waters to honour its commitment to producing 100% renewable energy by 2035.

These few examples bear witness to increasing global awareness and highlight the numerous initiatives underway, but much remains to be done to improve the quality of the air we breathe. Beyond this observation, World Environment Day should be an opportunity to look to the future and dream up new solutions.