Government envoys issued a political declaration outlining the path to "a pollution-free planet" at the third UN Environment Assembly.
File photo shows heavy smoke billowing from the chimney of a factory in Pietarsaari. (Photo: AFP/Olivier Morin)
The world's nations vowed on Wednesday to curb plastic and chemical contamination of the air, soil, rivers and oceans, calling for a steep change in how goods are produced and consumed.
Government envoys issued a political declaration outlining the path to "a pollution-free planet" at the third UN Environment Assembly (UNEA).
"Pollution is cutting short the lives of millions of people every year," said the call to action adopted in Nairobi at the world's highest-level decision-making forum on environmental issues.
"Every day, nine out of 10 of us breathe air that exceeds WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines for air quality and more than 17,000 people will die prematurely because of it," the declaration added.
It committed governments to promoting "sustainable economic productivity", and to encouraging more "sustainable lifestyles" by making it easier to reuse and recycle products, reducing waste.
"What we need to do next is to move concretely to a plan of action," UN Environment Programme deputy head Ibrahim Thiaw told journalists on the final day of the December 4-6 pollution-themed gathering.
All 193 UN states are members of the UNEA.
"Some of the actions will have to do with the way we produce and the way we consume," Thiaw said.
"Our models of production and consumption will have to change. We do not have to have models of production and consumption that harm the environment and keep killing us."
This would require "very clear policies" from governments at the national and local level, said Thiaw, such as banning single-use plastic shopping bags.
No room for mistakes
"Every year we dump 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic in our oceans and generate over 40 million tonnes of electronic waste," the ministers said.
The UN Environment Programme said it has received 2.5 million anti-pollution pledges, including from national governments, municipalities, businesses and individuals.
They include commitments, which are non-binding, to ban plastic bags, curb air pollution, or green public transport.
Some 88,000 individuals made pledges too, undertaking to switch to less-polluting fuel, for example, or to use less plastic and recycle more.
Taken together, if all the commitments by governments, businesses and civil society are honoured, they would lead to 1.4 billion people breathing clean air, said Jacqueline McGlade, who co-authored a pollution report for the assembly.
Furthermore, 480,000 kilometres (almost 300,000 miles) - a third of the world's coastlines - will be unpolluted, and US$18.6 billion (€15.7 billion) will be invested in anti-pollution research and innovation.
The assembly heard this week that pollution has become the biggest killer of humans, claiming nine million human lives every year - one in six deaths worldwide.
Of the annual tally, nearly seven million people succumb from inhaling toxins in the air - from car exhaust fumes, factory emissions and indoor cooking with wood and coal, according to a recent report by The Lancet medical journal.
Lead in paint alone causes brain damage in more than half-a-million children every year.
The president of the UNEA meeting, Costa Rica's environment minister Edgar Gutierrez, lamented on Wednesday that humans "haven't done a good job" managing Earth's natural bounty.
"The room we have for making more mistakes is very narrow," he warned.
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