In 2015, diseases arising from pollution caused three times more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. As the problem evolves and grows, global governance must address the causes head on, writes Rolph Payet
Pollution, to be understood in its historical context, refers to contamination by something foreign. But with the expansion of human development we have seen that interpretation evolve to a much broader perspective, including health, and thus become a primary challenge of environmental law. Since pollution knows no borders, can accumulate, does not readily disintegrate, and can have visible and invisible impacts on the environment as well as human health and well-being, many international conventions today seek to tackle pollution at source with a life-cycle approach, through prevention and exposure, and through economic policies and legal instruments.
However, with intense pressure on resources for development, against a backdrop of increasing population growth and consumption, pollution levels are now well beyond the planetary boundary with serious health consequences such as acute respiratory and toxic accumulation in human tissue, to graver effects such as several types of cancers, reproductive and neuro developmental disorders, and disruption of our hormone (endocrine) system. As estimated by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, more than nine million premature deaths in 2015 were caused by diseases arising from pollution.
This is three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence.
Assuming that this figure is only the tip of the iceberg, and we consider the impact from a social and economic perspective, then we need to account for the billions of dollars that would be spent or lost in health treatment, loss of jobs, loss of economic development potential, and the increased disease burden in children and the elderly.
On that basis, global governance mechanisms involving governments and industry are critical in reversing these alarming trends. There are many cases where effective action through sound government policies has led to measurable progress in addressing pollution. The successful implementation of the Montreal Protocol on the depletion of the ozone layer shows that skin cancers arising from exposure to UV will reduce by 14% per year by 2030. Body burden tests under the Stockholm Convention have seen a reduction in DDT, a toxic chemical used in agriculture.
The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions are three key, global, legally binding agreements that have in their preamble the common objective of protecting human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals and wastes at all stages of their life cycle, from production to disposal. They remain relevant in addressing present and emerging issues, such as plastic waste and its impact on human health and biodiversity.
The Plastic Waste Amendment under the Basel Convention, adopted in May 2019, aims to clarify and strengthen entries for plastic waste, bringing many types of plastics into the prior informed consent procedure and therefore ensuring a more transparent, traceable and enforceable set of measures concerning imports and exports of such waste between countries.
To complement these amendments, the parties also adopted a comprehensive package of decisions to address the management of plastics and plastic waste through a partnership involving all relevant stakeholders and numerous activities to support countries in implementing the measures.
Besides international treaties, other high-profile global and political processes such as the G7, G20, the United Nations General Assembly and the World Economic Forum are required to effectively address pollution and its health impacts at the highest policy and industry levels.
Sustainable Development Goal 12 of the 2030 Agenda calls on states to achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all waste throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment by 2030. Tackling pollution from this integrated and wider framework is seen as the most effective approach to meeting those goals in the next 10 years with respect to pollution and health.
Those global processes provide the political motivation, context and framework to address those complex issues. But the onus remains on national governments to translate those expectations, targets and plans and to implement those measures.
Lack of political will and consumer awareness as well as poor capacity and governance frameworks are all challenges for achieving the 2030 target and successful implementation of the international environmental conventions. In many cases the political discourse is unilaterally driven by popular needs focused on jobs and economic growth, rather than the associated costs to health and environmental well-being.
In countries that lack the most sound management of chemicals and waste, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four. In 2018, the World Health Organization estimated the disease burden preventable through sound management and reduction of chemicals in the environment at around 1.6 million lives and around 45 million disability adjusted life years in 2016.
It is therefore also critical that industry make proactive decisions and stimulate innovation towards greener jobs and products. According to McKinsey, companies that manage sustainability, and indeed mitigate pollution, through their value chains have better prospects at value growth and long-term competitiveness.
Coupled with drivers of change, such as increased consumer awareness and availability of safer alternatives, health and environmental well-being are becoming the political choice in many countries of the world, but their efforts will have limited effect unless the entire planet and its leadership make health their political choice.
Concrete steps should start with the most advanced countries, such as those in the G7 and the G20, and create an enabling political ‘afterburner’ within the UN General Assembly and the United Nations, to ensure clear commitment to the targets established through the SDGs and legally binding international instruments.