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GAHP Blog

Calling for a Science-Policy Interface on Pollution, Health, and Environment

Exposure to pollution leads to over 9 million deaths per year. This is greater than the number of deaths caused by smoking, hunger, natural disasters, war, AIDS, or malaria.[i] Air pollution, the risk factor responsible for the largest number of pollution-related deaths, is also closely linked to climate change. Toxic emissions from fossil fuels and biomass for heating, electricity generation, transport and agriculture/land use are simultaneously the world’s largest sources of carbon dioxide and disease-causing particulate matter.[ii]  Pollution also damages animals and plants, with consequences for healthy ecosystems and agriculture.

Despite these severe impacts that crosscut human, animal and environmental health, pollution has not received international attention on par with other key environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Pollution abatement and prevention remain severely underfunded. According to a 2019 study, pollution stemming from industrialization and urbanization receives 10 times less funding per death ($14/death) than funding for HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, and 90 times less than malaria.[iii]

According to a 2019 study, pollution stemming from industrialization and urbanization receives 10 times less funding per death ($14/death) than funding for HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, and 90 times less than malaria.

The starting point to address this lacuna is an effective call to action on pollution-related death and disease. GAHP advocacy has already scored significant successes in this regard, notably, inclusion of health and pollution in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015; the report of The Lancet Commission on pollution and health in October 2017, highlighting pollution as one of the world’s biggest killers; and adoption, in December 2017, of “a Pollution-Free Planet” as the theme for the Third Session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA3). As a result, pollution and its health impacts are beginning to be integrated into the global green agenda, alongside climate change and biodiversity conservation.

However, to merit global action on pollution that is similar to climate change and biodiversity conservation, GAHP calls for an initiative comparable to that associated with the other two issues, namely, a global science-policy interface.

Why a science-policy interface?

Bringing the latest and best scientific knowledge to bear on environmental issues makes for sound public policy. Credible and respected platforms not only ensure good policymaking, but also help expand public imagination around the issues, and governments and others respond accordingly. This has been the case with the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was formed by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 1988 and grew out of the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases that had been set up in 1985 by the International Council of Scientific Unions, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The IPCC is an autonomous body that provides the world with objective scientific information relevant for understanding the risks of human-induced climate change and possible response options. Its reports contribute to the work of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), under which the Paris Agreement was negotiated in 2015.

Building on the IPCC model, and with the intent of serving a similar purpose, the UN General Assembly in 2010 urged UNEP to establish the Inter-Governmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The organization was formed in 2012 and member countries considered its first full report in 2019. A preliminary report was also released in 2020 on lowering risks for pandemics.

Given that pollution is now recognized by UNEP as one of its three strategic pillars alongside climate change and biodiversity, pollution and health also ought to be served by an equivalent science-policy interface.

Although both IPCC and IPBES were established by the UNGA, they function as hybrid, autonomous scientific-cum-intergovernmental bodies. Participants at the meetings of the organizations serve in dual capacities: as scientific domain experts and as official government representatives. Neither entity undertakes original research; instead, they review and assess published literature in their respective spheres, and their reports tend to stimulate research by other entities.

How would it work?

Ideally, because both pollution and health are involved, an Inter-Governmental Science-Policy Platform on Pollution, Health and Environment (IPPHE) could be established jointly by UNEP and the World Health Organization (WHO) but function autonomously, with its own small secretariat.  

The good news is that, in response to a UNEA4 resolution, UNEP in 2020 published “An Assessment of options for strengthening the science-policy interface at the international level for the sound management of chemicals and waste”.  Although the report does not recommend any particular option, Option A (an independent platform à la IPCC and IPBES) seems the most attractive, as it would establish an independent body capable of stimulating global on action on pollution, on par with climate change and biodiversity.  While the report looked mostly to chemicals and waste, the scope of the work could easily be expanded to all pollution, including plastics and air pollution.

Given that pollution is now recognized by UNEP as one of its three strategic pillars alongside climate change and biodiversity, pollution and health also ought to be served by an equivalent science-policy interface. This body would ensure (i) application of the best science to policymaking and solutions, and (ii) the focused attention of governments and others (private sector, academia, civil society). GAHP calls on its members and allies to support this initiative.

This post was written by Sarah Berg, GAHP Communications Associate, and Laura Schaefli, GAHP Program Manager.


[i] Landrigan, P., Fuller, R., Acosta, N., Adeyi, O., Arnold, R., Basu, N., …  Zhong, M. (2017). The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. The Lancet, 391, 462-512

[ii] Global Alliance on Health and Pollution & Boston College (2020). Air Pollution Interventions: Climate and Health Impacts. Available at: https://gahp.net/report-air-pollution-interventions-seeking-the-intersection-between-climate-health/

[iii] Swinehart, S., Fuller, R., Kupka, R. & Conte, M.N. (2019). Rethinking Aid Allocation: Analysis of Official Development Spending on Modern Pollution Reduction. Annals of Global Health, 85(1), p.132. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/aogh.2633

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