For Blue Skies

The UN General Assembly designated 7 Sept as the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies
Vreme Op-Ed by Francoise Jacob,UN Resident Coordinator in Serbia

International days are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will as well resources to address global problems, and to celebrate achievements of humanity. The Clean Air Day for Blue Skies is one of the latest observance days established in December 2019. This is of utmost importance for the region of the Western Balkans too, and especially for Serbia, as a country with high air pollution levels.

Within Agenda 2030, the UN Member States already recognize the need to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from air, water and soil pollution and contamination by 2030, as well as to reduce the adverse environmental impact of poor air quality on cities. Аir pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally, with some estimated 6.5 million premature deaths across the world attributed to indoor and outdoor air pollution.  When it comes to Serbia, the last years’ report on Air quality by the European Environmental Agency clearly that Serbia is second out of 41 countries and territories in numbers of years of lost lifes due to air pollution.

While air pollution was for a long time considered as a characteristic of poor countries, it has become evident in the past 10 years that middle income countries and developed countries can be equally affected – Cities like Paris, Milan, Belgrade, Brussels are facing acute air pollution peaks throughout the year, from a range of polluting sources.

Encouraged by the increasing interest of the international community in clean air, and emphasizing the need to make further efforts to improve air quality to protect human health, the UN General Assembly designated September 7th as the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies.

Citizens as actors of change

Beyond the acute relevance to public health and climate change risks, the small detail I like in this observance is the reference to Blue Skies: this day should also be a reminder of the original beauty of Planet Earth, and of the poetic and spiritual dimensions of blue, clear skies. A symbol of happiness, of youthful energy and of unlimited opportunities.

Yes, there is a wide difference across the world in terms of political prioritization of such issues. While Europe is certainly leading in many ways, other countries in all continents are taking steps to address CC in meaningful way. In India, the level of investment for renewable energy is comparable to that in fossil fuels. New Zealand has a zero emissions goal enshrined in law, but short-term policies cannot yet keep up with that ambition. Morocco is further advancing its climate policies and may as one of the few developing countries be able to curb its emissions by 2030. Good examples also come from China - after suffering severe smog in 2011.

Firm action from governments is typically driven by a handful of factors: a political vision, the repeated and increasing occurrence of extreme weather events with fatal consequences on both the people and the economy, hard economic facts and futuristic predictions, pressure from the citizens, pressure from risk adverse institutions (insurance companies and banks), and to some extent, international competition and stimulation. 

While we are often tempted to see action on climate change and air pollution as being the responsibility of the state, the prime actors of change, in many places, have been and must be the citizens themselves. Citizens have the right to demand change, and the duty to initiate change in their own lifestyle – in consumption and transport for example. More young people start to understand that, and it makes me very hopeful. Cities, around the world, are also playing an increasingly important role in adopting new approaches for urban development, mobility, energy efficiency, etc.

Unfortunately, in many places, it is only when the direct impact on people is visible and quantifiable (increased public health pressure), that both citizens and decision leaders will react. In Serbia over the last 3 winters, the air pollution in several cities was very serious, and for the first time, the ombudsman received hundreds of calls from citizens. Such action will make decision makers react. The problem is that by then, the situation is very problematic, and the action will be extremely costly to have a significant, and fast impact.

Tackling the issue on strategic level

This is why it’s important that while we address the existing polluting infrastructure and systems, we pay an equally critical effort to attach stringent anti-pollution, low emission standards to new projects and long term investments. Serbia, in its accession to the EU ambition, will have to address a number of environmental requirements, including on air quality. Some progress has been made, with the monitoring of air quality, and the development of AQ management plans in Belgrade and Pancevo. All actions need to be considerably reinforced. 

The United Nations and a number of its affiliated bodies/platforms, such as the Inter panel on Climate Change, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Conference of the Parties (COP) have been leading both the scientific efforts on CC, the outreach activities to global audience, while encouraging states and other authorities to take actions on the ground.

The fact that Climate Change action has become at the core of the Youth agenda around the world is a great sign of youth awareness and youth empowerment. It is also shows that responsibility for action is shared by all generations. The UN Secretary General has recently appointed a Youth Advisory Group, calling for Swift Action to Tackle Climate Change, Shape COVID-19 Recovery, and Confront Injustice. We will be working on these topics with youth organisations in Serbia too!

Equally important is the role of the private sector. Great innovations are multiplied in the past 10 years, to reduce our footprints. My ambition is that the UN in Serbia, along with its partners, will build a compelling story for moving from brown to green economic model. And I expect there will be some great collaboration with the EU Member states under the Green Deal for the Balkans too.

In larger cities in Serbia, the key sources of air pollution are individual heating and power generation, followed by transport, burning of municipal waste, and on a seasonal basis, burning of agricultural waste. The same sources are the largest emitters of carbon and local warming, contributing to local climate change. We need to both accelerate the shift towards a green economy, and stop investing in polluting technologies.

Challenge for all countries

This is how pollution impacts our health - tiny, invisible particles of pollution penetrate deep into our lungs, bloodstream and bodies. These pollutants are responsible for about one-third of deaths from stroke, chronic respiratory disease, and lung cancer, as well as one quarter of deaths from heart attack. Ground-level ozone, produced from the interaction of many different pollutants in sunlight, is also a cause of asthma and chronic respiratory illnesses. Air pollution disproportionately affects women, children and older persons, and also has a negative impact on ecosystems. WHO has done extensive studies in the region, and is provided expertise support to the Government of Serbia on this matter.

Some air pollutants, such as black carbon, methane and ground-level ozone, which are typically dangerous for human health, are also short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) and are responsible for a significant portion of air pollution-related deaths. They also have an impact on crops and hence food security, so their reduction has co-benefits for the climate. They persist in the atmosphere for as little as a few days or up to a few decades, so reducing them can have an almost immediate health and climate benefits for those living in places where levels fall.

Poor air quality is a challenge in the context of sustainable development for all countries. The causes vary but they are very well known. The challenge is that improving air quality will typically require very large investments in new technologies for power generation, transport, heating, and sometimes, in agricultural productions. It means in many cases shifting the economic model from brown to green in a relatively short period of time (10 to 20 years), and inducing behavioral changes in all of us.

It is our ambition at the UN in Serbia, to have a focus action on both air pollution and climate change. The UN Cooperation Framework with the government of Serbia for the 2021-2025 period will include a priority action on harnessing the full potential of a green, sustainable and inclusive economy, increasing opportunities for all, and reducing risks. We intend to build up the partnership with many of the local actors on these topics, and with the local and national authorities. The Clean Air for Blue Skies day is a wonderful opportunity to reinforce our message. The recovery strategy from the COvid19 crisis gives us a powerful platform to initiate changes now. People are ready.

The topic of clean air came up during the COVID lockdown, when people around the world witnessed a sudden Cleaning of the air…. In some countries, young people under 30 mentioned they had never seen their cities surroundings, the mountains, the blue sky, and… the stars!

We know what to do. Technology exists. Good practice abounds. Financing is available for green economy and COVID green recovery. Let’s pull all our energy, intelligence and solutions together, and let’s move forward fast, now! For our generation, and all generations to follow.

UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations