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OPINION: A breath of clean air should be a human right

by David R. Boyd | United Nations
Wednesday, 5 June 2019 06:11 GMT

Cho Eun-hye takes a rest while walking her dog Hari, both wearing masks, on a poor air quality day in Incheon, South Korea, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Hyun Young Yi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Billions of people today are breathing dirty and deadly air, even though air pollution is almost entirely preventable

David R. Boyd is the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment and an associate professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Every minute of every day, a young child dies of illness caused by air pollution. In that same minute, a dozen adults will die, prematurely, because of dirty air inhaled during their lifetime.

The total - 7 million premature deaths a year - is larger than the number of deaths caused by war, murder, traffic accidents, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined.

Both clean air and clean water are fundamentally important to human life and wellbeing. A person can survive a few days without water, but only a few minutes without air.

Yet clean water is recognised as a basic human right. Clean air is not, even though we have the clear, proven solutions to provide it.

Our scientific understanding of the adverse health effects of air pollution has made great strides in recent years. It is now indisputable that breathing dirty air causes and exacerbates respiratory illnesses. The evidence is equally clear that air pollution causes heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

Over 90% of the world’s population lives in regions where air pollution exceeds World Health Organization standards. The very worst air quality is found in homes where solid fuels are used for cooking. This means women and children are especially exposed to fine particulate matter and other pollutants, at levels far higher than those found in even the most polluted cities in the world. 

It has been a decade since the United Nations General Assembly passed a breakthrough resolution recognising for the first time that access to clean water is a basic human right. But we have yet to see a similar resolution granting the broader right to live in a healthy environment — which fundamentally includes clean air.

Surely, the time has come.

Air pollution clearly violates the rights to life and health, the rights of the child, and the right to live in a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

The good news in amongst the darkness of this data is that air pollution is almost entirely preventable. The solutions are known - from regulation of fossil fuels and crop burning to clean technologies. As an added bonus, many of these solutions can also help stem climate change.

There are two main causes of air pollution, both of which can be tackled. The first is ambient or outdoor air pollution, caused largely by industry, coal-fired electricity generation and transport. The second is household air pollution, mainly from cooking and heating with solid fuels and burning kerosene for lighting.

Combined, these can leave people in some countries with little respite from dirty air whether they are indoors or outdoors. In India, for example, ambient and household air pollution was attributed to some 1.2 million deaths in 2017, according to a study in The Lancet

In a recent report to the Human Rights Council, I set forth seven key steps that countries need to take to protect human rights from air pollution. These include establishing air quality monitoring networks; quantifying the main sources of air pollution; engaging and informing the public; enacting laws, regulations, and air quality standards; developing national action plans to achieve those standards; allocating adequate resources to implement the plan; and evaluating progress, and if necessary, taking stronger actions.


Making the switch to clean cooking stoves and fuels needs to be a global priority. This will protect the health of millions of people, especially in developing countries, and deliver significant economic and environmental knock-on benefits.

India and Indonesia have made impressive progress by providing free liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) stoves to over 100 million poor families. These stoves dramatically reduce air pollution, save time previously spent gathering fuels such as firewood, and emit fewer greenhouse gases than solid fuel stoves. This may therefore be the only situation in the world where it makes sense to subsidise the increased use of fossil fuels.

The World Bank has estimated that switching all remaining households to clean stoves and fuels by 2030 would require an investment of approximately $5 billion per year.

Weigh that against the health benefits, the time saved and economic opportunities it opens up for women, the quality of life improvements, the reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and the reduced pressure on forests (for firewood). It’s a fantastic investment.

It also fits easily within the US$100 billion in annual financial assistance that wealthy nations have committed to provide to low-income countries to address the challenges of climate change. 

Other proven solutions to reducing air pollution include replacing coal-fired electricity with renewables, emphasising walking and cycling in cities, electrifying public transit, ending fossil fuel subsidies, improving waste management and helping farmers to shift to cleaner practices.

Everyone needs to breathe clean air.

That billions of people today are breathing dirty and deadly air constitutes a global environmental crisis. Urgent action from governments across the world is needed.

Not only do we have an opportunity to save tens of millions of lives in the decades ahead by reducing air pollution, we have a moral obligation to do so.