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Can the world be pollution-free?

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Context - Pollution is everywhere. Contaminants coming from human activity are found in the most remote reaches of the planet.

The economic and social growth of humanity has brought along large amounts of pollution.

How can we ensure that the planet doesn’t degrade further?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2017 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): "Towards a Pollution-Free Planet " 

  • Source document:UNEP (2017)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 19 December 2017

Introduction

Pollution has significant impacts on human health, the environment, and even on how some of the Earth’s systems, such as the climate, are functioning. Pollution touches all parts of the planet. It is affecting our health through the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Approximately 19 million premature deaths are estimated to occur annually as a result of the way we use natural resources to support global production and consumption and which impact the environment.

What are the sources of pollution?

Pollution can take many forms, some are easily noticed such as certain forms of contaminated water, poor air quality, industrial waste, litter, light, heat and noise. Others are less visible, for example pesticides in food, mercury in fish, excess nutrients in the sea and lakes, endocrine-disrupting chemicals in drinking water, and other micro-pollutants in fresh and marine water. Some, such as those coming from abandoned industrial sites, armed conflict zones, nuclear power stations, pesticide stockpiles, and waste landfills, form part of a longer-term legacy.

The sources and types of pollution are highly diverse, as are the solutions to deal with them. For example, hazardous chemicals in some paints, some cleaning compounds, dyes, electronic products, and many other household substances can become pollutants if not managed correctly. Highly hazardous chemicals, such as mercury, ammonium, ozone, and perchloric acid, that are used in a range of industries, are toxic and reactive and some have the potential at relatively small exposures to cause cancer, birth defects, induce genetic damage, cause miscarriage, injury or death if released into the environment. Ecosystem functions are put at risk as well. There are also many novel substances , such as some therapeutic drugs and nanomaterials, for which data on potential pollution effects are sparse.

  • Air pollution: The use of solid fuels for cooking, burning of fossil fuels, wildfires, burning of waste, tobacco smoke, all contribute to air pollution. Nine out of ten people in the world are breathing air that is polluted beyond the World Health Organisation (WHO) acceptable standards.
  • Land and soil pollution: agricultural practices, improper irrigation, solid waste management problems such as industrial and municipal landfills, and a range of industrial, military and mining activities.
  • Freshwater pollution: excess nutrients that come from the use of fertilisers in agriculture, pathogens from untreated waters, heavy metals from mining and industrial waste. Over 80 per cent of the world's wastewater is released to the environment without treatment.
  • Marine and coastal pollution: nutrients, waste and heavy metals from land sources, plastic debris as well as pollutants from the fishing, shipping and energy industries.  

What are the impacts of pollution?

The hazard of a pollutant for human health and ecosystems is based on its chemical nature and its intrinsic toxicity, the risks are related to the quantities emitted, exposure concentrations and its persistence in the environment1. Ecosystem functions are put at risk as well as humans and individual species. Due to their general health status, potential higher exposures and reduced resilience to social, environmental and economic risks, pollution can have a particularly disproportionate and negative effect on the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, some indigenous peoples, and vulnerablepopulations.

Pollution has also significant economic costs from the point of view of health-care , productivity losses, and ecosystem damages. For instance it is estimated that in 2013 the cost of air pollution was more than 5,000 billion USD, which is beyond the annual budget of the United States.

If consumption and production patterns continue as they are, the linear economic model of “take-make-dispose” will seriously burden an already- polluted planet, affecting current and future generations.

What is currently being done to address pollution?

Pollution is not a new phenomenon; it is largely controllable and often avoidable, but still considerably neglected. Responses by governments, business and citizens to pollution exist, but they remain limited in scope and scale. Meanwhile, better knowledge, alternative consumption and production models, as well as innovative technological solutions, mean that many countries, cities, and businesses are already successfully tackling a series of serious pollution issues.

With regards to chemicals and waste, existing multilateral environmental agreements enable actions, as has been the case for instance of the Montreal Protocol to ban ozone-depleting substances, the ban on lead additives in fuel and, more recently, for mercury with the entry into force of the Minamata Convention in 2013. Such legally binding approaches at the global level are essential for addressing the most critical and complex pollution challenges. In particular, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations2 provide an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of targeted and time-bound actions on pollution, which have been hitherto limited and inadequate.

Encouragingly also, more governments, industries and citizens are moving towards sustainable materials management, greater resource efficiency, less environmentally damaging chemistry, clean technologies, and circular economies, as part of a more comprehensive transformation towards a sustainable economy.

What are the benefits of addressing pollution?

A pollution-free planet is by far and away the best insurance for the survival and well-being of current and future generations of humans and ecosystems. It is obvious from many case studies that tackling pollution has already brought multiple benefits even if current responses may still be limited and inadequate. Projections indicate that further actions have the potential to enhance health and well-being and the economy. The two success stories, the Montreal Protocol for the healing of the ozone layer and the phasing out of lead additives in fuels show particularly that such initiatives can be successfully achieved.

A better resource efficiency applied over the whole production-consumption system can generate products which are identical or have the same functionality as when using traditional technologies and processes, while also reducing emissions and resource requirements. Moving to less-polluting and nature-based technologies, as well as waste recycling also offer economic and employment opportunities. However, careful and inclusive transition planning is required for those affected by these transformations.

What actions can be taken to make the world truly pollution-free?

Solutions to help remove pollutants and detoxify our environment exist around the world. These need to be expanded, shared, and scaled up in order to avoid risking further exposure of humans and ecosystems to current and future pollution as well as increasing the costs of clean-up. Improved risk assessment of new pollution sources is also urgently needed. Implementation gaps are in particular due to a lack of resources, and inadequate administrative, financial, institutional and technical capacity. Absence of inter-ministerial coordination and political will are key reasons why action does not happen.

It is in this context that the present report delivers the following five overarching messages:

  1. A global compact on pollution would make prevention a priority for all. It would also encourage policymakers to integrate prevention into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and national accounts;
  2. Environmental governance needs to be strengthened at all levels;
  3. Sustainable consumption and production should be promoted; waste reduction and management must be prioritized;
  4. Investment should be made in cleaner production and consumption to help control pollution, alongside increased funding for pollution monitoring, infrastructure, management and control;
  5. Multi-stakeholder partnerships and collaboration are vital for the innovation, knowledge-sharing and transdisciplinary research needed to develop technological and ecosystem-based solutions.

The report then proposes and encourages a synergetic mix of actions and a whole-system, multi-beneficial policymaking approach that builds directly on existing internationally agreed environmental goals. To reach these objectives, this report suggests a dual track of actions as framework for actions on pollution:

1 About the distinction between hazard and risk see the GreenFacts animation :
www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZmNZi8bon8  
2 See : https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300 


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