Change is needed if world is to overcome pollution crisis
Even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world did not register 9 million annual deaths. More than two years after the first infections were recorded, the number of fatalities worldwide stands at just above 6.3 million. That makes the latest The Lancet report on pollution all the more alarming, as it seems that the world’s leaders continue to disregard the fact that it is a bigger killer than COVID-19. But hardly anyone is calling for a lockdown, telling us to adapt our lifestyles or even applying more stringent regulations on factories and industries.
Pollution is a silent killer. Meanwhile, the world continues to struggle to agree on a unified approach on how to protect people from excess emissions and climate change, while transitioning away from fossil fuels.
The report by The Lancet Commission on pollution and health, which was published last week, stated that pollution’s impact on global health “remains much greater than war, terrorism, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs and alcohol.” According to the report, pollution caused some 9 million deaths in 2019. This should raise the alarm, as the world is likely to see more human deaths as a result of breathing polluted air, as well as the horrifying toll of lead poisoning.
The report claims that pollution problems are intertwined with the conditions of our environment and our inability to control climate change and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and biofuels, whose excess use is known to be harmful to our planet’s precariously balanced ecosystem. Lead author Prof. Richard Fuller of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution said: “If we cannot manage to grow in a clean and green way, then we are doing something terribly wrong.”
According to the report, one in six of all deaths globally in 2019 — that is 9 million — were caused by pollution, a figure unchanged since the last assessment in 2015. While researchers have noted a reduction in mortality linked to indoor air pollution, unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation, especially in Africa, deaths associated with industrialization are on the rise due to outdoor air conditions and chemical pollution, particularly in southern and eastern Asia.
It makes for a chilling and gloomy read, as it states that ambient air pollution caused some 4.5 million deaths in 2019, compared with 4.2 million in 2015 and just 2.9 million in 2000. What is more alarming is the increase recorded in deaths linked to chemical pollution, with lead poisoning claiming 900,000 victims. The report warned this was likely to be a substantial undercount, with new research claiming there is no safe level of exposure to lead as we had previously thought.
I read this report while I was trying to follow sessions from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where for decades the movers and shakers of the richest corporations, banks, politicians and leaders from civil society and the scientific world have discussed how a better form of capitalism can lift us all out of poverty and save the planet by transitioning to greener economies and societies. Parallel to that, a little-known UN summit is being held in Indonesia to discuss what Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed has described as humanity’s “spiral of self-destruction.”
These meetings are clearly geared toward telling two tales about our world, depending on which side of the divide you are sitting. The Bali conference’s focus is on achieving sustainable development for all in a world transformed by COVID-19. It hopes to further states’ readiness to deal with disasters. The Davos meeting, meanwhile, is likely to claim that continued growth will ensure the world’s ability to deal with forthcoming challenges.
The way forward is maybe something that could combine the work of both groups, with an emphasis on better preparedness to deal with any new pandemic, while speeding up the transition to a greener world, which will come at a huge cost that will have to be paid by all countries, corporations and even people, who must rid themselves of old consumerist-based binges. It looks increasingly like a zero-sum game where the future of humanity and the planet is concerned.
We have long been hearing warnings related to global health preparedness, and COVID-19 has exposed the lack of it in all countries rich and poor. The war in Ukraine is having ripple effects in our interconnected world. One day it is fuel shortages, the next it is wheat. Above all, it shows how the security and conflict resolution apparatuses that were set after the Second World War are broken and outdated and how they are in need of reform.
It looks increasingly like a zero-sum game where the future of humanity and the planet is concerned.
Climate action is also in disarray, as geopolitics today overshadows the urgency of states’ joint climate action and their efforts to stabilize the world’s biodiversity. Ultimately, the planet suffers further damage as a result of greenhouse gas emissions continuing to increase, oceans warming up and forests shrinking, causing biological diversity to continue to decline.
To face all this, a moment of truth is needed to admit that sustainable development is proving elusive if based on the performance and adaptation of existing market forces. Capitalism, though still the main vehicle of growth, is unlikely to deliver enough to meet these challenges. Above all, maybe we should prepare for the worst and accept that progress, technological advances and corporate responsibility, coupled with human goodwill, are unlikely to overcome pollution and redress the biology and physics that calibrate the viability of our planet. We had better start changing our promises in the hope of reducing pollution levels in the years to come.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.