World Environment Day 2019

Remarks by Ms. Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator

The theme for this year’s World Environment Day is air pollution.  All around the world -- from megacities to small villages – people are breathing dirty air.  An estimated nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to air pollutants that exceed World Health Organization air quality guidelines.  This is lowering life expectancy and damaging economies across the planet.

To improve air quality, we must know our enemy.  Deaths and illnesses from air pollution are caused by tiny particles that penetrate our defences every time we fill our lungs.  These particles come from many sources: the burning of fossil fuels for power and transport; the chemicals and mining industries; the open burning of waste; the burning of forests and fields; and the use of dirty indoor cooking and heating fuels, which are major problems in the developing world.

This polluted air kills some 7 million people each year, causes long term health problems, such as asthma, and reduces children’s cognitive development.  According to the World Bank, air pollution costs societies more than $5 trillion every year.

Many air pollutants also cause global warming.  Black carbon is one such example.  Produced by diesel engines, burning trash and dirty cookstoves, it is extremely harmful when inhaled.  Reducing emissions of such pollutants will not only improve public health, it could alleviate global warming by up to 0.5 degrees Celsius over the next few decades.

UN Environment’s sixth Global Environment Outlook estimates that climate mitigation actions for achieving the Paris Agreement targets would cost about US$22 trillion. Meanwhile, by reducing air pollution, we could save US$54 trillion in combined health benefits. The math is clear: acting now against air pollution translates into saving US$32 trillion.

Tackling air pollution therefore presents a double opportunity, as there are many successful initiatives that both clear the air and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as phasing out coal-fired power plants and promoting less polluting industry, transport and domestic fuels.  With investments in renewable energy sources outstripping those in fossil fuels every year, the rise of clean energy is helping globally.  Cleaner transport is also growing around the world.  

In China who is hosting this year’s World Environment Day, megacities like Beijing and Shanghai have taken serious policy actions and investments to clean the air.  Over half of Beijing’s public buses are now electric. Coal burning used to be a major source of energy generation and air pollution but through rigorous policies and investments is now reduced to less than 5% of total energy consumption.  Industries adopted greener production methods.  As a result of multiple actions, fine particle levels have dropped a record-breaking 35% in 5 years.  This all happened while in the last 20 years, Beijing’s economic output grew ten times and number of cars tripled.  Beijing’s example shows that it is possible to grow and reduce carbon emissions and pollution at the same time. 

Guyana is a strong global advocate for climate action and the green development pathway.  The Green State Development Strategy is an ambitious and transformative national development vision and strategy that is well aligned with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.  The fight against global warming and poverty eradication – leaving no one behind - cannot be won without this level of ambition and transformation.  The Green State Development Strategy continues the pathway started under the Low Carbon Development Strategy. It diversifies and accelerates the development trajectory fit for the post-2015 era, which for the world is marked by climate change and for Guyana is marked by the advent of oil.  

It goes without saying that implementation is going to be challenging and business cannot be done as usual.  Implementation requires rigorous planning and performance management than ever seen before, and active engagement and cooperation from all sectors and actors – public sector, private sector, political parties, civil society, communities, citizens and international development partners.  We are talking about behaviour change and societal transformation in Guyana and around the world.      

The UN System will support the implementation of the Green State Development Strategy.  We would like in particular to work with the Government and interested partners to address interconnected SDG issues affecting the most vulnerable and marginalised population groups.  For example, in the context of World Environment Day, we would like to support policy-making and catalytic public-private investments to generate decent green jobs at scale for youth and women from difficult environments.  What value chains and jobs can be generated out of waste management and a circular economy, safe and modernised fisheries and agriculture, clean energy and transport, sustainable tourism, a sustainable consumption society with zero one-time plastic use, healthy lifestyle needs, women and working mothers’ needs?  If we get the formula right and smart, we can potentially contribute to SDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17.  Achieving the SDGs as a package means a good life for all – people and nature.       

Despite years of talk, global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking. The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the highest it has been in 3m years. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3-4°C in the last 50 years. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heatwaves and risks to food security.

Thankfully, we have the Paris agreement – a visionary, viable, forward-looking policy framework that sets out exactly what needs to be done to stop climate disruption and reverse its impact. But the agreement itself is meaningless without ambitious action.

The UN Secretary-General is bringing world leaders together at a climate action summit in September in New York. He is inviting all world leaders to bring to the summit concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next decade, and to net zero by 2050.  We have the technology, knowledge and solutions to make the requisite changes – what we need is political will and action. 

Let us take a deep breath to appreciate the air we breathe in and out, still close enough to the rich oxygen-generating forests of Guyana.  Cognizant that deep breathing is also at the routine core of meditation and yoga disciplines to practice mindfulness, and knowing that mindfulness is the start of behavior change, we should take many more deep breaths.  Let us #BeatAirPollution.   

Speech by
Mikiko Tanaka
Resident Coordinator
Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Environment Programme