9 December 2021
Why We Need a Science Policy Panel on Chemicals, Waste and Pollution
Photo by Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR
story highlights

Pollution is the largest environmental risk factor for premature death on the planet, responsible for 9 million deaths each year.

One way to bring much needed visibility and focused attention to this critical issue is a science-policy panel on pollution, chemicals, and waste.

At UNEA-5.2 in February/March 2022, governments are expected to decide whether to establish an intergovernmental panel for chemicals, waste, and pollution.

By Rachael Kupka, Acting Executive Director, Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (rachael@gahp.net)

Pollution is the largest environmental risk factor for premature death on the planet, responsible for 9 million deaths each year. This is on par with the number of deaths caused by smoking, and greater than those caused by hunger, natural disasters, war, AIDS, or malaria.

For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, economic growth, and the environment have been neglected by governments and in the international development agenda. Moreover, pollution abatement and prevention remain severely underfunded. According to a 2019 study, pollution stemming from industrialization and urbanization receives ten times less funding per death (USD 14/death) than funding for HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, and 90 times less than malaria.

In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relating to affordable and clean energy (Goal 7), industry, innovation, and infrastructure (Goal 9), sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11), and responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), pollution must receive greater recognition. Sustained attention and funding to address pollution issues are especially critical to achieve a target of SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing): By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination (SDG target 3.9). With 2 million deaths per year attributable to chemical exposure alone, and with growing evidence of the toxicity of several commonly used chemicals, action is urgently needed.

One way to bring much needed visibility and focused attention to this critical issue is a science-policy panel on pollution, chemicals, and waste. In October 2021, the Africa Group, Costa Rica, Ghana, Mali, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay co-sponsored a resolution to establish such a panel, proposing that governments take this action at UNEA 5.2 in February 2022.

Pollution is now recognized by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as one of its three strategic pillars alongside climate change and biodiversity. Despite this, pollution, chemicals, and waste continue to receive far less attention and resources than either climate change or biodiversity, and are not adequately addressed by existing science policy panels.  

A science-policy panel on chemicals, wastes, and pollution would ensure (i) application of the best science to policymaking and solutions, and (ii) the focused attention of governments and others, such as the private sector, academia, and civil society. It would also strengthen linkages between the three most pressing environmental issues of our time. To spell out these linkages: pollution is one of the top five drivers of biodiversity loss, and it compromises the ability of ecosystems to provide clean air, water and food, in both urban and rural areas. Pollution also undermines ecosystem resilience to climate change, while climate change increases the vulnerability of ecosystems to pollution.

Bringing the latest and best scientific knowledge to bear on environmental issues makes for sound public policy. Credible and respected platforms not only ensure good policymaking, but also help expand public imagination around the issues, and pave the way for governments and others to respond accordingly.

At the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), to be held from 28 February to 2 March 2022 in Nairobi, Kenya, governments are expected to decide whether to establish an intergovernmental panel for chemicals, waste, and pollution. Reducing and mitigating pollution is essential to improving the health of humans and the natural world. A science policy panel is where we can start.


related events