A recent study published in The Lancet found that almost the whole world's population was exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution in 2019, with only a mere 0.001 percent breathing air that contains fine particulate matter (PM2.5) at concentrations lower than what the World Health Organization recommends (5 μg/m3). While these alarming numbers show yet again that air pollution is a global issue, the response at the global level has only recently picked up speed. At the international level, the United Nations General Assembly recognized just last year that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including air, land and water, is a human right.
While sources of air pollution might differ from country to country, measures to reduce certain types of pollution can be similar and benefit from cooperation, sharing of experiences and mutual learning. In the framework of the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, countries already recognized over 40 years ago that cooperation is key to reduce emissions. The results of this collective effort have already led to better air quality, 600,000 premature deaths avoided annually and ecosystem recovery from air pollution damage. However, there are still challenges within and beyond the region. As air pollutants do not stop at national borders, they affect countries far away from their point of emission.
Recent reports under the Convention all point to the need for further international cooperation, especially for those pollutants that stay in the atmosphere for a long time and are transported across regions. Recognizing the importance of stronger cooperation both within and beyond the UNECE region and the need to further share the Convention’s experience and expertise, Convention Parties launched the Forum for International Cooperation on Air Pollution, which aims to support international exchange of information and mutual learning on both the technical and policy levels and is intended to be a repository for technical information and a convener of countries and organizations, facilitating increased international cooperation on this critical challenge. Chaired by Sweden and the UK, the inaugural meeting of the Forum took place in Gothenburg, Sweden this week 16 March 2023).
The international meeting, which was opened by the Minister for Environmental Quality and Resilience of the UK, Ms. Rebecca Pow, gathered about 120 participants from all parts of the world. In her speech, Minister Pow highlighted the Convention as an example of the importance and effectiveness of international cooperation. Acknowledging the complexity of the air pollution issue, she emphasized that this should not stop anyone from tackling it. Stronger cooperation, even beyond the Convention, such as through the Forum for International Cooperation on Air Pollution, is therefore needed.
Participants discussed pathways to air pollution action in a regional context and highlighted regional cooperation initiatives from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The experience of the science-policy interface under the Convention, specifically in developing decision-making tools, was underlined as useful for their own regional contexts by participants from Asia and Latin America. Research cooperation that could assist in capacity-building in African countries was also highlighted. Many participants stressed that tailoring narratives, communication, and language to different contexts was key to raising the importance of clean air with policymakers across governance levels.
Following on to this, participants also exchanged about ‘no regret’ actions for improving air quality in different sectors and regions, taking both climate change and economic development into consideration. Participants mentioned projects from around the world, for example on fertilizer management in the Hebei province, China, alternatives to open burning of agricultural wastes in Eastern Europe, on more efficient and low emission heating in the Western Balkans, and on the assessment of short-lived climate pollutants in the African region, among others.
Stakeholders also discussed common challenges, trade-offs, needs for air quality improvements and possible approaches to take forward international collaboration and inter-regional cooperation on air pollution.