Clean Air for All by 2030? Air Quality in the 2030 Agenda and in International Law

Date01 April 2016
AuthorPhilipp Schönberger,Birgit Lode,Patrick Toussaint
Published date01 April 2016
Clean Air for All by 2030? Air Quality in the 2030
Agenda and in International Law
Birgit Lode,* Philipp Sch
onberger and Patrick Toussaint
Air pollution poses one of the greatest human health
threats in the twenty-f‌irst century, accounting for an
estimated 7 million premature deaths annually. In the
light of this, global efforts to promote clean air are ever
more important and should feature among the key pri-
orities on the agenda of the international community.
The universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Develop-
ment, adopted in September 2015 by the United
Nations General Assembly, offers an important oppor-
tunity to tackle air pollution at a global scale. Stressing
the importance of air pollution as a human health haz-
ard, this article examines to what extent air quality is
covered by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals
(SDGs), and provides an analysis of the added value of
the 2030 Agenda vis-
a-vis existing international regu-
latory instruments addressing air pollution. Even
though the SDGs do not include a stand-alone goal on
air quality, the article concludes that the 2030 Agenda,
by establishing clean air as an integral element of the
principle of sustainable development, not only consti-
tutes an important contribution to international
(hard) law focusing on the atmosphere, but also sets
out a much needed complementary pathway of tack-
ling the issue in the absence of a global agreement on
air pollution.
For many low- and middle-income countries, air pollu-
tion reaching hazardous levels is commonplace. This is
not only limited to indoor air pollution,
but the situa-
tion with respect to outdoor air pollution can also be
severe. To give but one example, in November 2015 the
United States embassy in Beijing, China reported that
the level of f‌ine particulate matter (PM
) harmful to
human health had exceeded 400 micrograms per cubic
metre (lg/m
more than 17 times the level the
World Health Organization (WHO) considers to be
Both indoor and outdoor air pollution are much
less severe in Europe, which has one of the most mod-
ern and comprehensive sets of environmental stand-
ards in the world. Looking at a time span from the
1970s to the present day, in Europe emissions of specif‌ic
air pollutants have been reduced signif‌icantly.
even in Europe reducing air pollution remains impor-
tant. Here, too, air pollutant concentrations are still
higher than recommended for the protection of human
health, with a signif‌icant proportion of Europes popula-
tion living in areas, especially cities, where exceedances
of air quality standards occur.
It is in the light of this reality that the United Nations
Environment Programmes (UNEP) new Governing
Council, the United Nations Environment Assembly
at its f‌irst session in June 2014 in Nairobi,
Kenya, adopted a resolution on air quality, noting that
air pollution contributes to 7 million premature deaths
each year globally, a burden of disease that, by now,
may exceed the burdens of malaria, tuberculosis and
AIDS combined. Moreover, it highlighted the need to
build upon existing global, regional and sub-regional
cooperative efforts on air pollution.
Less than one year
later, the WHOs World Health Assembly in May 2015
adopted a resolution addressing the health impact of air
* Corresponding author: Birgit Lode.
See WHO, Burden of Disease from the Joint Effects of Household
and Ambient Air Pollution for 2012 (WHO, 2014), found at: <http://
BoD_results_March2014.pdf>; UNEP, ‘Post 2015 Note #3: Human
Health and the Environment’ (April 2014), found at: <http://www.unep.
org/roap/Portals/96/UNEP-Post-2015-Note-3.pdf>; J. Lelieveld et al.,
‘The Contribution of Outdoor Air Pollution Sources to Premature
Mortality on a Global Scale’, 525:7569 Nature (2015), 367.
See ‘Chinese Authorities Boost Smog Alert Level in Beijing’, BBC
News (29 November 2015), found at: <
world-asia-china-34957373>and T. Phillips, ‘Airpocalypse Now:
China Pollution Reaching Record Levels’, The Guardian (9 November
WHO, Air Quality Guidelines for Particulate Matter, Ozone, Nitrogen
Dioxide and Sulfur Dioxide: Global Update 2005: Summary of Risk
Assessment (WHO, 2006), found at: <
European Environment Agency (EEA), The European Environment
State and Outlook 2015: Synthesis Report (EEA, 2015),at 21.
EEA, ‘Air Pollution’, found at: <
See Change of the Designation of the Governing Council of the Unit-
ed Nations Environment Programme (UNGA Resolution A/RES/67/
251, 7 March 2013) which formally changed the designation of
UNEP’s Governing Council to the ‘United Nations Environment
UNEA Resolution 1/7, Strengthening the Role of the United Nations
Environment Programme in Promoting Air Quality, in: Proceedings of
the United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations Envi-
ronment Programme at its f‌irst session, Annex I (UNEP/EA.1/10,
2 September 2014).
ª2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
RECIEL 25 (1) 2016. ISSN 2050-0386 DOI: 10.1111/reel.12151
Review of European Community & International Environmental Law

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