Dr. Maria Neira, Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO

The spread of COVID-19 around the world has placed a heavy burden on overstretched, and in many cases, underfunded health systems. It has highlighted the growing encroachment by human beings on the natural world and the calamity of inequality. Many of us have lost loved ones, jobs and our economies have been weakened. It physically distanced us, affecting both our mental and physical health.

Still, in the midst of the crisis, there is hope

In 2020, air pollution levels in cities around the world declined to levels not seen in a lifetime. Some people breathed clean air for the first time in their lives, showing us just how starved our lungs had been of uncontaminated air. Lockdowns meant that our usually bustling cities had fewer people making car trips, which resulted in less noise, congestion and air pollution, and communities that were safer for walking and cycling. In some cases, air quality improvements outlasted lockdown measures. As the smog lifted to brighten distant mountain views, we got a glimpse of how our world could be.

Some cities moved to pedestrianize streets and expand cycle lanes to enable “physically distant” transport. These changes will outlive the pandemic, mitigate climate change and bring major health benefits by reducing air pollution, road traffic injuries, and the over three million annual deaths from physical inactivity. But there is still more to do.

A healthy and green recovery

As global vaccination drives are underway and economies slowly reopen, it is imperative that we keep a healthy recovery in mind. The World Health Organization Manifesto for a healthy and green recovery to COVID-19 lists more than 80 actions for governments at all levels to take, which will lead to social and environmental well-being for all.

Actions relevant to fighting air pollution include: governments establishing and enforcing air quality standards in line with WHO guidelines; implementing policies that ensure clean fuels and technologies are available for households; ending subsidies on fossil fuels for power generation and transport; exempting tax of clean energy and fuels; and embedding environmental and health benchmarks in financial recovery packages.

The cost of air pollution

Seven million people die from exposure to air pollution every year – that’s 1 in 8 of all deaths. Over 90% of people breathe outdoor air with pollution levels exceeding WHO guidelines, two-thirds of this results from the burning of the same fossil fuels that are driving climate change. We cannot let this continue. The overall cost to human life and economies is just too big.

Global air pollution is estimated to amount to US$ 5.11 trillion in welfare losses each year. While in the 15 countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, the health impacts of air pollution represent more than 4% of their GDP.

A clean energy transition

A rapid global transition to clean energy would not only meet the Paris climate agreement goal of keeping warming below 2C, but it would also improve air quality to such an extent that the resulting health gains would repay the cost of the investment twice over.

Many of the largest and most dynamic cities in the world, such as Milan, Paris, and London, have some of the highest levels of air pollution, and were also hit the hardest by COVID-19. While the verdict isn’t out yet, many scientists point to a link between air pollution and COVID-19. For instance, people with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or those who live in areas with high levels of air pollution, have a greater chance of hospitalization.

COP26: An opportunity to accelerate action

In the coming months, political leaders, civil society and businesses will gather to discuss opportunities and strategies that will shape the way we live our lives, work and consume for years to come. The 2021 Global Conference on Health & Climate Change in November will have a special focus on Climate Justice and the Healthy and Green Recovery from COVID-19. For us at WHO, a healthy recovery is one which transitions the world from fossil fuel dependence. Health professionals from around the globe have shown that they are strong supporters of action to protect the environment – now it’s time they make a call for governments to stop using taxpayer money to subsidize dirty fuel.

In an open letter to G20 leaders last year, health workers expressed that even before COVID-19, air pollution – primarily from transport, polluting energy and stoves for cooking and heating, coal-fired power plants, and the burning of solid waste – was already weakening our bodies. It is high time we shift towards clean renewable energy, which would in turn make our air cleaner, massively reduce climate emissions, and power an economic recovery that would spur global GDP gains of almost 100 trillion US dollars between now and 2050.

The COP26 summit in November will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The health community is always represented at climate discussions, but this year at COP26 we are coming with strong health messages. This includes promoting strategies to build climate-resilient health systems, reducing air pollution and climate emissions in the health sector, and mobilizing the health community as an impartial, professional voice to drive climate action. A truly healthy recovery is one that doesn’t allow pollution to continue unabated; that doesn’t continue the escalating damage to ecological systems, but promotes a healthier, fairer, and greener world.