Geneva, Switzerland & Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 1 June 2015 – The world’s governments took an important step forward in recognizing air pollution as a major threat to human health, by issuing a resolution at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this week. The resolution mandates greater engagement by the World Health Organization (WHO) to address a problem responsible for one out of eight deaths worldwide.
The passage of this resolution marks a significant milestone in the global consensus among health leaders that air pollution has serious and costly health consequences, and therefore requires urgent action on the part of the health sector worldwide. It follows the WHO’s finding that air pollution exposure caused 7 million premature deaths in 2012, more than twice the death toll from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis (TB) combined.
At the same time however, governments at the World Health Assembly were unwilling or unable to address the single most significant source of both outdoor air pollution and climate change: society’s dependence on fossil fuels, particularly the combustion of coal for energy generation.
“The resolution is an important step forward in that it will raise consciousness in the health sector and empower the WHO to more robustly address the problem,” said Josh Karliner, Director of Global Projects at Health Care Without Harm . “But it is only a small step at a time when we urgently need to take a giant leap to protect public health from both air pollution and climate change.”
A WHO database  places South African city air pollution well above internationally accepted levels. In fact, the air in South African cities is so bad that it is comparable even to the mega polluted cities of China. The database revealed that Johannesburg, in particular, has very poor air quality resulting from coal-fired power generation and poor environmental governance.
The magnitude and urgency of the problem continues to far outweigh the scale of the action. Earlier this month, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report found that “subsidies”, or societal costs of fossil fuels worldwide surpassed all health spending globally, amounting to U.S. $5.3 trillion, or 6.5% of global GDP. The IMF found that ending these subsidies would slash the number of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution by 55%, or about 1.6 million lives a year. Moving away from coal, they found, would account for a 93% share of this reduction.
Coal also accounts for one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, so a transition away from coal would also protect public health from climate change. Yet the health benefits of transitioning from fossil fuels was not mentioned in the resolution.
“Solar and wind power are increasingly cost- competitive with fossil fuels in today’s economy,” said Karliner. “When you take the health costs and benefits of different energy choices into account, clean, renewable energy emerges the winner, hands down.”
The announcement by the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Minister in February that Eskom would be granted its request for ‘postponements’ on 14 of its coal-fired power stations from complying with the minimum air emission standards, exacerbated an already dangerous outside air quality.
“This negatively impacts people’s health,” said Rico Euripidou, Environmental Health Campaigner at groundWork . “This is true in particular for those communities in the Highveld region in Mpumalanga, where most of the country’s coal-fired power stations are situated. It flies in the face of the government’s constitutional mandate to protect people’s right to an environment that is not harmful to one’s health and well-being.”
A year from now, the WHO plans to propose a roadmap for an enhanced global health sector response to address the adverse health effects of air pollution.
“We hope that the WHO roadmap can help chart a global transition away from fossil fuels and towards clean, healthy renewable energy,” said Dr. Renzo Guinto, Healthy Energy Initiative  for Health Care Without Harm Asia.
“The global health community has created an impressive Global Fund to deal with HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB,” said Dr. Guinto, “it needs to generate similar ambition to address the causes and consequences of air pollution.”
 Health Care Without Harm works to transform the health sector worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it becomes ecologically sustainable and a leading advocate for environmental health and justice.
 World Health Organisation. 2014. Ambient Air Pollution Database by city and country. Available online at http://www.who.int/phe/health_topics/outdoorair/databases/cities/en/
 groundWork is an environmental justice organisation working with community people from around South Africa, and increasingly Southern Africa, on environmental justice and human rights issues focusing on Coal, Climate and Energy Justice, Waste and Environmental Health. groundWork is the South African member of Healthcare Without Harm, and Friends of the Earth International.
 The Healthy Energy Initiative, a program of Health Care Without Harm, is a global network of health professionals, academics, and organizations calling for a shift from coal and other fossil fuels, to clean, renewable, healthy energy. For more on the Healthy Energy Initiative’s response to the World Health Assembly air pollution resolution, visit www.healthyenergyinitiative.org.
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