Last updated: 07 Sep 2022

Encouraged by the increasing interest of the international community in clean air, and emphasizing the need to make further efforts to improve air quality, including reducing air pollution, to protect human health, the General Assembly decided in 2020 to designate 7 September as the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies.

International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies

Clean air is important for the health and day-to-day lives of people, while air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), air pollution is the world’s biggest environmental killer. Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that air pollution is responsible for around seven million premature deaths each year through diseases such as lung cancer, acute respiratory infections and heart disease, and that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. In addition, air pollution disproportionately affects women, children and older persons.

Air pollution doesn’t only affect human health, it also negatively impacts the climate, economic growth and our natural environment. Air pollution decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, making it harder for plants to grow and as such, contributes to climate change. The good news is that air pollution is largely avoidable and its negative consequences are preventable. Solutions are known and can be implemented. The world needs to act now.

In order to raise awareness and mobilize efforts against air pollution, the international community celebrates each year International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, as set out in the UN General Assembly resolution 74/212.

Yearly Themes and Activities

Since 2020, the international community has been celebrating International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies with a different theme selected for each year. Find more information for each year below:

Clean Air and the Sustainable Development Goals

The right to breathe clean air goes hand in hand with achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including healthy lives, sustainable cities, access to clean energy, and climate change mitigation. In “The Future We Wantof the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, countries committed to promoting sustainable development policies that support healthy air quality in the context of sustainable cities and human settlements. In addition, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development outlines a road map to achieving sustainable development, environmental protection and prosperity for all, recognizing that air pollution abatement is important to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. Air pollution is directly mentioned in two SDG targets:

  • Target 3.9: By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination
  • Target 11.6: By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management

Clean Air is a Human Right

Poor air quality has implications for a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, food, housing and an adequate standard of living. Air pollution also clearly violates the right to a healthy and sustainable environment.

Air pollution is a preventable problem. The solutions − laws, standards, policies, programmes, investments and technologies − are known. Implementing these solutions will of course entail large investments, but the benefits of fulfilling the right to breathe clean air for all of humanity are incalculable.

In “The Right to Breathe Clean Air” report to the General Assembly by David R. Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, offers a number of recommendations to States for actions they should consider as part of a national air quality action plan. The Special Rapporteur also urges businesses to fulfill their responsibility, to contribute to and support efforts to reduce air pollution.

Air Pollution and Climate Change

The main sources of air pollution and greenhouse gases are often the same. Most actions to improve air quality also therefore help to fight climate change. Many of the drivers of climate change such as inefficient and polluting forms of energy and transport systems contribute to air pollution. Thus, strategies to fight both climate change and air pollution go hand in hand.

Burning of fossil fuels – for power, transportation, and industry – is the main source of the carbon emissions driving climate change and a major contributor to health-damaging air pollution. Scientists anticipate that a warming climate will worsen air quality. If current emissions continue, ground-level ozone events are expected to intensify, especially in densely populated areas, leading to more respiratory illness.

In certain areas, the frequency and extent of wildfires – and with them, emissions of PM and other pollutants – are projected to increase. In some areas, a drier climate will lead to more dust storms; in others, pollen and other airborne allergens are likely to increase. As the globe warms, wildfires and associated air pollution are expected to increase, even under a low emissions scenario.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) includes scenarios on how air quality may evolve as the climate warms throughout the twenty‑first century. These scenarios range from the possibility of increased emissions of air pollutants in developing regions of the world, to a carbon‑neutral scenario in which urgent and effective policies to limit emissions of greenhouse gases (such as CO2 and methane) provide the co‑benefit of rapidly reducing emissions of air pollutants (such as NO, black carbon or sulfur dioxide – SO2).

Plastics and Air Pollution

While we are familiar with the presence and impact of plastic on oceans and the freshwater ecosystem, the plastic crisis is multifaceted and deeply connected to other aspects of the ongoing environmental crisis. In fact, the plastics sector is one important industrial contributors to air pollution. Microplastics have been detected in the atmosphere of urban, suburban, and even in remote areas such as in high-altitude glaciers, the Arctic and Antarctic suggesting potential long-distance atmospheric transport for microplastics. The incineration of plastic waste also releases toxic gases such as dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls into the atmosphere and poses a threat to the environment.

Monitoring Air Quality

Globally

In 2021, UNEP published the First Global Assessment of Air Pollution Legislation (GAAPL) and presented the findings of a study of air quality legislation in 194 countries and the European Union. Using the Air Quality Guidelines developed by the WHO as a starting point, the report examines the legal measures for determining whether air quality standards are being met and what legal standards exist for failure to meet them. UNEP also published The European and Central Asian Actions on Air Quality report.

Click on the image below to explore the quality of air worldwide in real time.

In Geneva

The air quality in Geneva is constantly under observation and four fixed measuring stations are active in the canton. Geneva is implementing measures targeting the sources of the pollution and applying a cantonal strategy to prevent air pollution.

The Role of Geneva

Addressing air pollution requires multisectoral and multistakeholder efforts that build upon synergies between different organizations. As a global hub for international environmental governance, air pollution is a priority for Geneva and the various intergovernmental, international and non-governmental institutions active in the area (listed below in alphabetical order). The First WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health took place in Geneva in from 30 October to 1 November 2018.

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP)

GAHP is a collaborative body of more than 60 members and dozens of observers that advocate for resources and solutions to pollution problems. Focusing on improving health as a priority and key metric for combatting pollution, GAHP recognizes that collaborative, multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral approach is necessary and critical to deal with the global pollution crisis and resulting health and economic impacts, as seen in their report, “Air Pollution Interventions: Seeking the Intersection Between Climate and Health“.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

ISO is a global network of the world’s leading standardizers. ISO has many international standards that contribute to cleaner air and reducing pollution. ISO’s technical committee ISO/TC 146Air quality2) , has over 170 published standards and 37 in development that cover a range of areas such as the measurement of air pollutants and emissions, workspace air and indoor air.

Stockholm Convention

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife, and have harmful impacts on human health or on the environment. Exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to disease and damages to the central and peripheral nervous systems. Given their long range transport, no one government acting alone can protect its citizens or its environment from POPs.

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

To improve air quality, UNECE member states have been working successfully to reduce air pollution in the region through the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. Eight protocols identify specific measures to be taken by the Parties to cut their emissions. The Convention also provides access to emission, measurement and modelling data and information on the effects of air pollution on ecosystems, health, crops and materials.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment is mandated to continue to study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. The current Special Rapporteur, David R. Boyd, developed “The Right to Breathe Clean Air” report for the UN General Assembly with a number of recommendations to States for actions they should consider as part of a national air quality action plan. He also urges businesses to fulfill their responsibility, to contribute to and support efforts to reduce air pollution.

World Economic Forum (WEF)

The Alliance for Clean Air works towards a 1.5° trajectory by 2030 by catalyzing action on ambient air pollution and prioritizing health. WEF also provides strategic insights and contextual intelligence on air pollution.

World Health Organization (WHO)

The First WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health took place in Geneva in from 30 October to 1 November 2018. The WHO also developed the guideline “Health and the Environment: Addressing the Health Impact of Air Pollution“.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

The Global Atmosphere Watch Programme of the WMO studies the variability and trends in atmospheric composition and related physical parameters, and assesses their consequences. One major aspect of the Global Atmosphere Watch is to organize, participate in and coordinate assessments of the chemical composition of the atmosphere on a global scale. In this way, the Global Atmosphere Watch provides reliable scientific information for national and international policymakers, supports international conventions on stratospheric ozone depletions and monitors climate change and long-range transboundary air pollution.

The WMO publishes the Air Quality and Climate Bulletin, reporting annually on the state of air quality and its connections to climate change, reflecting on the geographical distribution of and changes in the levels of traditional pollutants. The Bulletin highlights the main factors that influence air quality patterns, in comparison to other years, showing how there were episodes of both improvement and deterioration of air quality in different parts of the world. 

Global Campaigns

Alliance for Clean Air

The World Economic Forum has partnered with UNEP to engage the private sector and garner commitments through the Alliance for Clean Air. It brings together different sectors and organization to share facts, best practices, work through the barriers to action, and develop public-private partnerships.

BreatheLife

BreatheLife is a global campaign launched in 2016 to mobilize cities and individuals to protect our health and planet from the effects of air pollution. It combines public health and climate change expertise with guidance on implementing solutions to air pollution in support of global development goals. The campaign is supported by WHO, UNEP, the World Bank and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. BreatheLife’s growing network includes 76 cities, regions, and countries.

Clear the Air

As the population approaches 10 billion with people concentrated in urban areas, air pollution is likely to worsen. Clearing the air has garnered governmental commitment. On 1 September 2020, UNEP launched Clear the Air as part of its #BeatPollution campaign and aims to raise awareness about the impact of air pollution.

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