One of our most precious resources is often taken for granted and invisible unless it becomes visible. I am talking about air. We don’t give the air around us much thought in our daily lives, except when it becomes unbearable to breathe due to fumes or other causes of air pollution. Or, if it becomes too scarce.
This year’s World Environment Day is putting a spotlight on fighting air pollution. The National Geographic Magazine describes air pollution as a “mix of particles and gases that can reach harmful concentrations both outside and indoors. Its effects can range from higher disease risks to rising temperatures.” Examples of pollutants are smoke, mold, pollen, methane, and carbon dioxide.
Every year approximately seven million people die from air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. Research has linked air pollution as the cause of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory diseases such as asthma. Especially children are affected. Breathing dirty air can slow the mental development of children and cause wide-ranging health problems. Even worse, air pollution is 10 percent of the cause of death among children. Just looking at the U.S., more than 40 percent of Americans are at risk of disease and premature death due to air pollution, according to the American Lung Association.
The impact of air pollution on our health is often underestimated in the context of climate change. Extreme weather incidents and natural disasters, such as heat waves and wildfires, increase greenhouse gases. They not only pollute the air we breathe; they also bring our ecosystem out of balance – with dire consequences, such as the spread of new diseases. The U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment predicted in 2018 that a changing climate “could expose more people in North America to ticks that carry Lyme disease and mosquitoes that transmit viruses such as West Nile, chikungunya, dengue, and Zika.”
While some causes of air pollution, such as natural disasters, are hard to predict and to prevent, there are steps that individuals and businesses can take to help reduce air pollution. At the core is the reduction of our carbon footprint. We have to be more aware of the impact of our individual lifestyle choices on the overall society. Everyone can help reduce air pollution by reducing their own carbon footprint.
Public awareness about air pollution and climate change, as well as individual engagement, are important to help meet regional and global carbon footprint reduction goals. The European Union, for example, set a target to cut at least 40 percent in greenhouse gas emissions compared with the levels in 1990. Technology can help to facilitate the change to a cleaner economy and a healthier society. By 2050, the European Commission envisions a climate-neutral economy by investing in technological solutions, empowering citizens, and aligning action in key areas, including industrial policy, finance, and research. Technology can help monitor environmental impacts, such as air quality and carbon footprint, and find more environmentally-friendly ways of production in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It can also help bring the facts to convince the nay-sayers that we have to act against climate change. Technology can help make the impact of our lifestyle choices on the climate visible to all of us – and find solutions.
The question is not whether or not we have to act against air pollution, or climate change overall. It is more a question about how we have to act to stop climate change as fast and best as possible. One of the biggest discussions around climate change, at least in Germany, is around financing. Like every transformation, changing the way we produce, work, and live has a cost. It requires rethinking the use of resources, the way we produce and the way we consume. How can we finance this transformation and transition our society smoothly into a climate-neutral economy?
Increasing public awareness and embracing technological capabilities can give us more breathing room to act against environmental pollution and climate change and find answers for all these open questions together before it is too late.