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Towards a pollution-free planet


    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.

    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 and impact the environment to support global production and consumption.

    The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations in 2015 commits to “ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature”. How does pollution fit in that picture?

    What are the sources of pollution?

      Pollution can take many forms, ranging from organic compounds and other chemical substances to different types of energy. Some types of pollution 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 paints, cleaning compounds, dyes, electronic products, and many other household substances can become pollutants if not managed correctly. Ecosystem functions are put at risk as well. There are also many emerging and novel products, such as some therapeutic drugs and nanomaterials, for which data on potential pollution effects are sparse.

      On the other hand, food waste globally has been estimated to be as high as one third of all food produced for human consumption – nearly 1.3 billion tons.

      Figure 3: Major sources of today's pollution

      Market demand on one side of the planet is often satisfied by labour, production and natural resources originating from halfway across the globe. Fossil fuels now account for 50 per cent of the global trade volume. Research finds that trade leads to a redistribution of environmental burden towards countries that extract and produce resources. As such, the environmental impacts and pollution generated by global consumption habits are disassociated from those most impacted locally. Trade patterns, policies and agreements can play a crucial role in internalizing some of the environmental and social costs of production in order to minimize pollution at a global scale.

      Air pollution

      One important source of air pollution is indoor air pollution produced by the use of solid fuels for cooking in the house. The other major source of air pollution is outdoor pollution resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Wildfires, the burning of waste, and tobacco smoke, all also contribute to air pollution. It is estimated that 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

      Land and soil pollution is largely due to agricultural practices, to improper irrigation, to solid waste management problems such as landfills, and to a range of industrial, military and extractive activities. Globally, estimates indicate that at least 1 million people are unintentionally poisoned every year by excessive exposure and inappropriate use of pesticides, with health effects on all.

      The waste products of industrial processes or mining activities are another source of pollution as they may contain heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and microorganisms, which can be difficult to remove once they find their way into the environment. Former industrial or military sites that are no longer in use can also be the sources of pollutants if they are not decontaminated properly. While some high-income countries have programs and regulations to deal with soil pollution, many poorer nations lack such programs, and are at risk to form ‘pollution hotspots’.

      Freshwater pollution

      Rivers and lakes are heavily affected by pollution, especially by the excess nutrients that come from the use of fertilisers in agriculture, one of the most pervasive water quality issues on a global scale, interfering with many human water uses and causing major shifts of species in ecosystems and loss of biodiversity.

      Over 80 per cent of the world's wastewater is released to the environment without treatment creating a pollution from pathogens as well as from chemicals such as heavy metals from mining and industrial waste. These lead to a loss of biodiversity and to water that is improper for human consumption.

      Marine and coastal pollution

      Oceans receive most of their pollutants from land through rivers in the form of nutrients, waste, heavy metals and plastic debris which fragment into pieces of less than 5 mm but do not biodegrade in the marine environment. The rest comes from the fishing, shipping, and energy industries. The impacts of ocean acidification, which are for a large part associated with the dissolution of carbon dioxide emissions, are most visible on marine species with calcareous skeletons, such as corals and plankton which form the base of many marine food webs.

      What are the impacts of pollution?

        The severity of a pollutant for human health and ecosystems is dependent on its chemical nature and intrinsic toxicity, quantities emitted, exposure concentrations and persistence. Highly hazardous chemicals, such as mercury, ammonium, ozone, and some organic compounds used in a range of industries have the potential to cause cancer, birth defects, induce genetic damage, cause miscarriage, injury or death from relatively small exposures, if released into the environment. The specific harm caused by different pollutants depends not only on the environment where it is emitted (air, water or soil) but also possibly on the mix of pollutants that are present and the actual level of exposure. For example, about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace with over 100,000 still dying annually from such exposure.

        Pollution poses a direct threat to respecting, protecting and promoting human rights and gender equality, international human rights obligations related to health, life, food and water. 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, indigenous peoples, the disabled and the vulnerable. For instance, children poisoned by mercury and lead develop problems
in their nervous and digestive systems and kidney damage. In addition, many toxic dumpsites are located in poor areas, leading to environmental injustice.

        Figure 1: Examples of impacts on human health and ecosystem

        Safeguarding a healthy and sustainable environment for present and future generations and achieving the 2030 Agenda’s pledge to “leave no one behind”.

        Pollution has also significant economic costs from the point of view of health, productivity losses, health-care costs and ecosystem damages. 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.

        For instance, in 2013 it was estimated that the cost of air pollution was more than 5 000 billion USD, which is more than the annual budget of the United States. These substantial costs, are expected to rise over time, not only because of the direct effect of pollution on health, but also because of the impact of weakened livelihoods, as well as the longer-term impact on ecosystem services, that in turn affect local communities, societies and economies. With a better understanding of the economic costs of pollution, the human costs of pollution are critical information for decision-making and to support more effective policies.

        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. Thanks to better knowledge, alternative consumption and production models, as well as innovative technological solutions, many countries, cities, and businesses can now successfully tackling serious pollution issues.

          Today, a majority of UN Member States recognize environmental rights. The first Principles of both the 1972 Stockholm and 1992 Rio Declarations focused on the human right to a safe and clean environment. The Stockholm Declaration describes “the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being...”, while the Rio Declaration states that humans “are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. These declarations have, together with other principles, informed many national constitutions over the past three decades.

          At the same time, voluntary environmental initiatives have supported more formal environmental agreements, resulting in progress in some areas. But even more robust governance frameworks are required to bring us closer to a pollution-free planet. In particular, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations1 provide an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of targeted and time-bound actions on pollution, which have been hitherto limited and inadequate.

          With regards to chemicals and waste, legally binding approaches at the global level are essential to addressing the most critical and complex pollution challenges.

          Existing multilateral environmental agreements already enable actions. This was notably in relation to the ban and substitution of ozone-depleting substances achieved in 2015, to the elimination of persistent organic pollutants and of most hazardous industrial chemicals and pesticides in international trade, as well as to hazardous and household waste and in particular to mercury with the entry into force of the Minamata Convention in 2017. Several of the multilateral environmental agreements were ratified worldwide or nearly worldwide.

          The Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets2 also calls for a decrease in pollution and demands specific actions on excess nutrients. Today, a majority of UN Member States recognizes environmental rights. As of 2015, over 100 countries guaranteed their citizens a right to a healthy environment, with the majority of countries building this into their national constitutions. Although no international agreement explicitly recognizes the right to a healthy environment, national constitutions have played a vital role at the forefront of human rights and environmental protection. The majority of constitutional environmental rights include substantive, procedural, and emerging rights, such as the right to health and food, while others refer to policy-based, reciprocal-duty, and miscellaneous provisions.

          Encouragingly, 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. Trade can lead to greater environmental burdens in countries that extract and produce resources, as such activities generate waste and emissions. But trade can also provide solutions in terms of improved environmental goods and services. However, the capacity to adequately tackle pollution varies hugely across regions, social groups and genders.

          At the same time, responses by governments, business and citizens to pollution remain sometimes limited in scope and scale and to date, there are no legally binding agreements that systematically address pollution in all its forms. If global and regional environmental agreements provide a partial framework, there are many gaps. For example, some agreements are only target-based, some are time-bound, while others cover also compliance-related actions, monitoring and reporting. For example, voluntary initiatives and global alliances – on topics such as fuel efficiency improvements, cleaner air and lead in paint – have addressed some of the more urgent issues, yet much more remains to be done to control and prevent pollution.

          What are the benefits of addressing pollution?

            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 both health, well-being, and the economy. Two success stories show what can be achieved: the healing of the ozone layer and the phasing out of lead in fuel.

            • The Montreal Protocol ensured that to date more than 99 per cent of the historic baseline levels of consumption and production of harmful ozone-depleting substances have been phased out and its Multilateral Fund provided roughly $3.7 billion to more than 140 countries to phase out ozone-depleting substances, with lasting influence on innovation, technology transfer, strengthening of environmental governance, and training of customs officers and technicians.
              As a result, the ozone layer is healing and is expected to be restored by the middle of the century. Consequently, up to two million cases of skin cancer may be prevented each year by 2030, decreases in agricultural and fisheries yields will be avoided and up to 0.5°C of global warming will be avoided by the end of the century as ozone-depleting susbstances were also responsible of about 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions.
            • For lead additives in fuels the phase out is now almost complete, with only three countries still using some lead in fuel, all of which are set to stop by the end of 2017. Governments, the oil and auto industries, and civil society have worked together to support a global shift to unleaded fuels. This massive shift prevents an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths every year, and it also has a positive impact on children’s intellectual ability as lead is known to affect children’s IQ (United Nations Environment Programme 2016a).

            Traditional pollution control that relies on “end-of-pipe” technologies has been shown to reduce polluting substances, such as in the case of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from heating and energy production units. However, these technologies also require materials and energy upfront to produce the equipment, and as a consequence, may increase environmental impacts.

            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. Transitioning to a pollution-free world can drive innovation and social equity throughout the economy, by seeing pollution prevention and regulation compliance as an opportunity to clean up everyone’s environment, create new jobs, improve economic productivity and protect the rights of this and future generations.

              Resource efficiency over the whole production-consumption system in particular can generate products which are identical or have the same functionality as when using traditional technologies and processes, while also reducing critical emissions and mitigating resource requirements and environmental impacts in the upstream processes.

              Moving to less-polluting and nature-based technologies also offers economic and employment opportunities. Renewable energy provided jobs for 9.8 million people worldwide in 2016, compared to 5.7 million in 2012. Waste recycling and reuse also offers the chance to convert waste into economic opportunities, including jobs. As secondary materials replace virgin materials (for example phosphate from fertilizer nutrient recovery), they reduce the resource and environmental footprint of growth, but they can also have income and job impacts on primary exporting countries. Thus, careful and inclusive transition planning is required for those affected by these transformations. It is estimated that the global market for environmental goods and services reached $866 billion in 2011, and is expected to rise to $1.9 trillion by 2020.

              However, challenges and gaps still limit the effectiveness of current actions. The key gaps are:

              1. implementation,
              2. knowledge,
              3. infrastructure,
              4. limited financial and industry leadership,
              5. pricing and fiscal, and
              6. behavioural.

              Implementation gaps are in particular due to a lack of resources; inadequate administrative, financial, institutional and technical capacity, and the absence of inter-ministerial coordination and political will. Absence of inter-ministerial coordination being a key reason why action does not happen.

              There is also insufficient recognition by different actors that producer and consumer choices have pollution consequences. Such choices – even in the presence of pollution policies and regulations – can be made out of habit, a feeling that one person or firm cannot make a difference.

              This report “Towards a pollution-free planet” is about encouraging a synergetic mix of actions and a whole-system, multi-beneficial policymaking approach that builds directly on existing internationally agreed environmental goals, including those relating to climate change, disaster and risk reduction and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its numerous pollution-reducing targets. As already underlined, existing international environmental agreements and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development present significant opportunities to accelerate actions to tackle pollution and improve the well-being of humans and ecosystems. The international framework for the Sustainable Development Goals encourages synergies between the Goal 3 and its associated target to “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination”, and others such as the targets for climate change, air quality, nutrient pollution and marine debris. These links are detailed in the appendices of the report.

              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. To advance this goal, this report has 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 – with targeted action on “hard-hitting” pollutants through risk assessments and enhanced implementation of environmental legislation (including multilateral environmental agreements) and other measures;
              3. Sustainable consumption and production should be promoted through improved resource efficiency and lifestyle changes, waste reduction and management being prioritized;
              4. Investment in cleaner production and consumption will help to counter 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.

              To reach these objectives, this report suggests a dual track of actions as framework for actions on pollution that UN Member States and other stakeholders may wish to consider to curb pollution around the world. This dual framework consists in the following combination:

              1. Targeted interventions, based on risk assessments and scientific evidence of impacts, to address “hard-hitting” pollutants as well as areas of pollution (air, water, marine and coastal, land/soil), including cross-cutting categories (chemicals, waste);
              2. System-wide transformations to shift the economy toward greater resource efficiency and equity, circularity and sustainable consumption and production, and improved ecosystem resilience to support cleaner and more sustainable development.

              This dual track of actions is guided and underpinned by the two other elements of the framework:

              1. The five principles drawn from the Rio Declaration and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: universality, sustainability, integration, precaution and inclusiveness.
              2. Enablers, or broader supporting actions, to shift incentives, correct market and policy failures and address some of the gaps and issues that make pollution so pervasive and persistent.

              The report then present in more details the actions that should be undertaken to tackle the challenges in the various areas and lead to a “pollution-free planet”.

              1 See : 
              2See our Highlight on Global Biodiversity Outlook 4

              Themes covered
              Publications A-Z

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