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July 8th, 2016:

Air pollution—crossing borders

A silent killer responsible for more deaths than the number from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and road injuries combined. A killer indifferent to political agendas and that cannot be contained by borders. Air pollution is associated with around 6·5 million deaths each year globally. While premature deaths from household air pollution are projected to decline from 3·5 million today to 3 million by 2040, premature deaths from outdoor pollution are set to rise from 3 million to 4·5 million in the same period. Transformative action is needed to mitigate this death toll.

There is a dearth of information available on the health effects and economic impact of environmental pollution. Proven solutions are available, but implementation remains a challenge that requires coordinated efforts across sectors and nations. A report by the World Wildlife Fund’s European Policy Office, Climate Action Network Europe, the Health and Environment Alliance, and Sandbag has, for the first time, quantified the cross-border health effects of air pollution from coal use in electricity generation in the European Union (EU), estimating total associated economic costs of up to €62·3 billion. The report aims to promote debate on the rapid phase-out of coal-burning power generation and calls for action at the national and EU level. Toxic particles created by burning coal can be carried beyond the borders of the countries where the power plants are situated. In France, where coal burning is low, 1200 premature deaths a year are caused by air pollution from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Spain, and the UK. The cross border nature of coal pollution highlights the need for governments to work together to urgently phase out coal burning.

The need for cooperation is reiterated in a special report on Energy and Air Pollution from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which campaigns for global action to overcome the negative environmental effects of energy use. The report cites energy production as the most important source of air pollution coming from human activity and presents strategies to tackle energy poverty in developing countries, reduce pollutant emissions through post-combustion control technologies, and promote clean forms of energy.

The Clean Air Scenario presented by IEA uses benchmarks for air quality goals, such as WHO guideline levels, to set long-term targets. Strategies outlined for the energy sector are adapted to different national and regional settings. In developing countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a notable health impact arises from smoky environments caused by use of wood and other solid fuels for cooking; whereas power plants, industrial facilities, and vehicle emissions are the main causes of outdoor pollution in many high-income countries. Cities in particular are susceptible to becoming pollution hotspots due to concentrated populations, energy use, and traffic.

Although the report takes important steps in tailoring policies to local and national conditions, the proposals are not ambitious enough. For example, the report sets out a scenario in which the number of people being exposed to fine particulate matter levels above the WHO guideline in the EU will be less than 10% by 2040. Yet in the USA, average air pollution limits are already below national limits, having declined by 70% since 1970 despite growth in population levels and energy consumption. Setting half-hearted goals as far ahead as 2040 will only widen the gap between the USA and the rest of the world. The report recognises the need for clearly defined responsibilities, reliable data, and a focus on compliance and policy improvement to keep strategies on course. However, long-term goals can be easy to forget or conveniently ignore, particularly if the issue is allowed to slip down the political agenda. Now is not a time to become complacent, but to match the strides being made by the USA in improving air quality.

The Lancet, the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, with coordination from the UN Environment Programme and the World Bank, have united to produce a Commission on Pollution, Health, and Development. The aim of the Commission is to inform key decision makers globally of pollution’s severe and under-reported contribution to the global burden of disease and to present available pollution control strategies and solutions, dispelling the myth of pollution’s inevitability and combating apathy. In a turbulent political climate, environmental pollution must not be allowed to fall by the wayside. Policies should take centre stage and nations must come together in a spirit of mutual cooperation to tackle air pollution.

Hong Kong pollution hits highest rating on hottest day of the year

Hundreds of flights cancelled or disrupted as super typhoon Nepartak slams Taiwan

Pollution levels across Hong Kong hit the government’s highest rating on the hottest day of the year on Friday, while Taiwan and eastern China continued to feel the force of severe typhoon Nepartak.

Murk and haze obscured the view across Victoria Harbour as air quality indicators at pollution monitoring stations clocked the highest “serious” category at all sites except the remote island of Tap Mun near Sai Kung which registered as “very high”.

“The intense sunshine enhances photochemical smog activities and the formation of ozone, resulting in high pollution in the region,” the Environmental Protection Department said.

Children, old people and those with heart or respiratory illnesses were advised to avoid or minimise exercise and outdoor activity.

As the chance of a tropical cyclone warning diminished, the Observatory recorded readings of 37 degrees Celsius throughout the afternoon in Ta Kwu Ling in the New Territories. Temperatures climbed to 36 degrees in Causeway Bay and Happy Valley.

Hundreds of flights steered clear of the path of super typhoon Nepartak as the eye of the storm made landfall on Friday morning, battering the southern tip of Taiwan.

The typhoon, now downgraded to “severe” after earlier reaching “super” status with wind speeds of 205km/h as it hit land, rolled onwards up the east China coast towards Fujian province.

Hong Kong’s weather authority said: “On this forecast track, the chance of strong winds in Hong Kong brought by Nepartak will be relatively low. The Hong Kong Observatory will closely monitor the movement of Nepartak and see if it will take on a more westerly track.”

On the second day of air travel disruption, about 400 flights were cancelled to and from Taiwan. Over 60 flights between the island and Hong Kong were also axed on Friday.

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, the island’s largest airport, looked to be spared a direct hit. The eye of the storm left Taiwan around 2pm.

But 250 flights departing and arriving at the Taipei hub were still cancelled, with dozens more delayed.

Air travel disruption between Hong Kong and Taiwan was expected to last throughout the day as Nepartak slowly powered across the island.

The air travel knock-on effect was expected to be felt on the mainland, where Nepartak was set to make landfall in the next 24 hours, potentially making a direct hit on Xiamen, in Fujian province. Xiamen airport and nearby Fuzhou and Xiamen already had flight cancellations.

Hong Kong carriers Cathay Pacific, Dragonair and Hong Kong Airlines between them scrubbed two dozen flights to Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung. Cathay Pacific and Dragonair also cancelled stopover flights from Taipei to Japan.

Mainland carriers grounded dozens of flights bound for Taiwan too.

Taiwan’s Eva Air sought to minimise disruption by moving some of its international flights from the island to depart ahead of schedule on Thursday. The airline delayed the arrival of flights bound for Taipei from Europe and the US, scheduling them to arrive after 9am Friday.