TODAY is the UN’s World Environment Day. This year’s event is focused on air pollution, as the UN explains:

Each World Environment Day is organized around a theme that focuses attention on a particularly pressing environmental concern. The theme for 2019, ‘Beat Air Pollution’, is a call to action call to combat this global crisis. Chosen by this year’s host, China, this year’s topic invites us all to consider how we can change our everyday lives to reduce the amount of air pollution we produce, and thwart its contribution to global warming and its effects on our own health.

Everybody of course wants to protect the environment and breathe clean air. But life is never as simple as that, and it is important that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

According to the UN, approximately 7million people a year worldwide die prematurely from air pollution, with about 4million of these deaths occurring in Asia-Pacific. But it also tells us that that around 3.8million of the total deaths are caused by indoor air pollution, the vast majority of them in the developing world. 

The solution to those premature deaths is not a top-down UN-based approach, but the provision of cheap and reliable energy which would do away with the need for burning biomass indoors.

Equally, the answer to pollution from coal power plants may lie in clean burning coal technology or gas burning plants, rather than unreliable renewable energy. It is for individual countries to determine their own solutions, not for the UN to impose them.

None of this is difficult to understand. We in the West have already gone through these learning curves in the past. We used to live with filthy air pollution, but with the help of technology and rapid economic growth we have improved our environment beyond what anybody would have thought possible a few decades ago.

That is not to say that our environment is perfect – far from it. But, despite the hype, our air becomes cleaner every year. The current policy of continuously tightening standards actually works.

This is the path which the developing world should be taking.

Finally we should not confuse air pollution with carbon dioxide, a confusion which the UN is only too keen to encourage.

CO2 is not a pollutant, and does not harm anybody’s health when they breathe it in.

Regardless of the risks from global warming, it is clear that the very policies promoted by the UN for reducing emissions of CO2 could be very costly to people’s standards of living worldwide.

How many will die because they cannot access cheap energy, or because agricultural production is adversely affected by the decarbonisation agenda? Surely the trillions which will be needed to radically transform our energy infrastructure could be put to much better use improving the lives of the world’s poor?

Maybe that should be the theme for World Environment Day 2020!

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