UN Warns of Continued Lethality of Air Pollution

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By Wachira Kigotha

May 25 — Air pollution-related deaths worldwide, already estimated at 7 million people a year, will continue to rise without stringent actions, especially in the developing world, according to reports presented at the Second Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Urban air pollution levels alone increased by 8 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to statistics from the UN Environment Program and the World Health Organization. “This makes air pollution the leading environmental cause of premature deaths,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, speaking May 24.

Exposure to polluted air can contribute to heart disease, strokes, cancer and respiratory diseases, he said.

A major issue in poor countries remains open fires for cooking and heating, said Steiner, who presented a UN report on global air pollution.

“Over 3 billion people continue to use solid fuels and open fires for cooking and heating and the number is expected to increase unless actions are taken to increase access to cleaner cooking fuels and stoves, renewables and low-sulfur content fuels,” said Steiner.

Auto Emissions Standards

Daniel Reifsnyder, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for environment, called on countries to adopt tougher auto emissions standards. He said vehicle emissions could be cut by 90 percent with worldwide adoption of European Union-level emissions standards for fuels and automobiles.

Only 29 percent of countries have adopted 2005-level Euro 4 emissions standards—which have been tightened twice in the past decade in the EU—according to Reifsnyder.

Under the Euro 4 emissions standard, the maximum allowable sulfur content is 50 parts per million (ppm), said Rob de Jong, the UNEP head of transportation. “But out of 193 countries surveyed by UNEP, only 66 countries, amounting to 34 percent, have a 50 ppm or better standard.”

North America, some of North Asia and most of Europe have stringent standards for both light- and heavy-duty vehicles and provide ultra low-sulfur fuels. Subsequently, this has resulted in lower emissions in the transportation sector in those parts of the world.


Some countries and cities have expanded recycling, effectively reducing the need to burn waste, UNEP said. It cited a move in Brazil to encourage farmers to leave crop residue from previous harvests on the land rather than burning it.

To contact the reporter on this story: Wachira Kigotha in Nairobi at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

For More Information

The United Nations Environment Program report, “Actions on Air Quality,” is available at http://src.bna.com/fks .