Former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres Urges Bold, “Unprecedented” Action in Facing Climate Crisis
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In her op-ed, Figueres notes that nine out of ten people on the planet breathe dangerous air, and an estimated seven million premature deaths per year are caused by air pollution-related diseases, including stroke and heart disease, respiratory illness and cancer, according to WHO.

She refers to fossil fuel combustion byproducts as “one of the most serious threats to children’s health and global equality,” noting that pollution from coal combustion and motor vehicles has been linked to development delays, reduced IQ and autism in children.

Figueres argues that the only way to combat climate change and its causes is to achieve economic growth and power such growth with clean, sustainable alternatives.

12 September 2018: Former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres wrote an op-ed published in the Washington Post on the eve on the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS), in which she calls continuing along the existing trajectory “irresponsible and absolutely unacceptable,” and notes that a comprehensive response to climate change could be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”

The GCAS convened in San Francisco, US, from 12-14 September 2018.

In her op-ed, Figueres notes that nine out of ten people on the planet breathe dangerous air, and an estimated seven million premature deaths per year are caused by air pollution-related diseases, including stroke and heart disease, respiratory illness and cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Other recent studies that Figueres mentions include the ‘State of Global Air 2018’ special report by health research institutes, which finds that more than 95% of the population breathes bad air, and a US National Academy of Sciences study, which shows the damage air pollution causes to cognitive abilities. China has closed tens of thousands of factories to reduce air pollution, she notes, while air pollution in Africa has been responsible for more deaths than unsanitary water or malnutrition.

Regarding the most concerning pollutants, Figueres points to toxic gases such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, or PM2.5. The small particles, which are a fraction of the size of the diameter of a human hair, are inhaled into the lungs. PM2.5, she notes, now increasingly exists in Europe and North America, partly due to wildfires, which are reversing air quality improvements across the western US.

Addressing the causes of air pollution results in immediate health benefits and is good for the climate over the long term.

Figueres refers to fossil fuel combustion byproducts as “one of the most serious threats to children’s health and global equality,” noting that pollution from coal combustion and motor vehicles has been linked to development delays, reduced IQ and autism in children.

Against the backdrop of these statistics, Figueres points to another trajectory, explaining that more people are standing up and demanding their right to clean air. She points to “the indisputable fact” that addressing the causes of air pollution results in immediate health benefits and is good for the climate over the long term. She cites, for example, the fact that after eight coal and oil- fired power plants were closed in California, the rate of preterm births of mothers living nearby fell within a year. In China, she says, the reduction of particulate pollution alone could reduce deaths by 20,000 per year by 2030.

Figueres argues that the only way to combat climate change and its causes is to achieve economic growth and power such growth with clean, sustainable alternatives. Governments, she notes, can save billions of dollars on health care, by shifting to electric transport, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and scaling ecosystem restoration, including mangroves, peat bogs and forests. She also underscores countries’ efforts to rapidly phase out petrol and diesel vehicles, including India’s announcement that at least 15% of its vehicles will be electric in five years, and Ireland’s recent vote to fully divest itself from fossil fuels.

Citing a recent New Climate Economy report, Figueres concludes that in addition to health benefits, comprehensive response to climate change will deliver “at least US$26 trillion in economic gain over business as usual by 2030.”

Christiana Figueres was UNFCCC Executive Secretary from 2010 to 2016. [Op-ed by Former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres]


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