When we think of climate change and its root causes, one of the first words that often comes to mind is pollution. More specifically, we think of air pollutants in the form of greenhouse gas emissions that we know are warming the planet and altering the balance of ecosystems. The following question therefore arises: Why is climate change and air pollution so often treated as two separate issues when they are so evidently interconnected?
To celebrate both Clean Air Day and the Climate Fringe Festival, we want to explore the close links between air pollution and climate change, as well as some of the suggestions that have been put forward in order to address both of these issues in an integrated manner. Moreover, the theme for Clean Air Day 2023 is focused on how air pollution affects our brain health and mental health. Researchers are beginning to understand how air pollution affects our brain and our mind. Being exposed to air pollution is linked to mental health and brain conditions such as depression, anxiety and dementia.
When a person breathes polluted air, small pollution particles can enter through the lungs, into the blood stream and can reach the brain. Therefore, we also want to use this opportunity to explore how climate change can also impact on our mental health and wellbeing.
Background: How are these issues connected?
Air pollution comes from a variety of sources and can be made up from lots of different chemicals, gases, or small particles, so they are more than just greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, air pollution is an inherently transboundary issue and is dispersed across the globe, even landing in some of the most remote places, and therefore, contributing to the warming of our planet. Simultaneously, changes in weather patterns as well as emissions from natural disasters such as wildfires caused by climate change can contribute to the accumulation and distribution of air pollution across countries and regions.
Many of the sources of outdoor air pollution, such as the use of fossil fuels for power generation and transport, are also high sources of carbon dioxide emissions, the primary driver of climate change. Moreover, short-lived climate pollutants such as methane and black carbon contribute to both climate change and poor health. Although they remain in our atmosphere for a much shorter period of time, their contribution to global warming is often much greater than carbon dioxide.
Fortunately, acting immediately to reduce short-lived climate pollutants tends to have immediate effects and decreases the chance of triggering catastrophic climate tipping points. These rapid reductions coupled with urgent carbon dioxide reductions will not only slow down the rate of global warming but also increase the ability for communities and ecosystems to adapt.
Worst Toxic Air Pollution from Wildfire Smoke, New York: June 7th, 2023
To offer a recent example, the interconnectedness of climate change and air pollution has been further reinforced over the last week with widespread, global coverage of the Canadian wildfires, with people across New York exposed to air pollution levels more than five times above the national air quality standard. June 7th was reported as the worst wildfire smoke day in recent US history and serves as a stark reminder that this could become our new normal if we do not act on reducing air pollution and confronting climate change right now.
Even New Yorkers sheltering indoors were not fully protected, with indoor air monitors in Manhattan showing that people were exposed to more than 100 micrograms of particulate matter. It is therefore expected that New York and other impacted cities across North America will see a surge in hospitalisations from respiratory and cardiovascular problems triggered by the smoke. Given the theme of Clean Air Day focusing on the brain and the mind this year, it would also be interesting to see if any data is recorded regarding hospital admissions related to mental health and brain health throughout this period.
Wildfire Warnings in Scotland
Unfortunately, Scotland is not exempt from the risk of extreme weather events, and wildfire warnings are becoming increasingly common across the country throughout the summer months. Nationwide warnings were issued by the Scottish Fire and Rescue service just last weekend, and this can be expected to continue as average daily temperatures remain dangerously hot.
Indeed, firefighters have spent the last two weeks battling a wildfire at Cannich near Inverness, which has caused extensive damage to a nature reserve. It has also left an impact on local communities with people living nearby being told to stay indoors with their windows closed to avoid smoke inhalation.
Not only will these wildfires have an impact on local air quality levels across Scotland, they also have the potential to worsen the climate crisis, given our abundance of peatlands across the country. With more than 20 percent of Scotland covered by peat, our peatlands are estimated to hold the equivalent of 140 years of our total annual greenhouse gas emissions. When peatlands are healthy, they have the potential to store even more carbon and act as a key nature-based solution to the climate crisis. However, when peatlands are damaged as a result of events such as wildfires, they contribute to both climate change and poor air quality by emitting carbon dioxide and other harmful greenhouse gases.
Integrated Policy Approaches
There is no doubt that climate change mitigation and clean air measures will only serve to complement each other. This conclusion can be made due to our understanding that so many sources of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be the same.
Furthermore, it can be presumed that there is more political will to act on public health issues than climate change alone, as communities personally impacted by air pollution tend to care more about those issues, even if they have no interest in tackling other environmental problems. This can partly be attributed to the fact that air pollution issues that are not related to carbon dioxide are more localised than the global problem that is climate change, meaning that air pollution often causes the most amount of damage to the region or country that it is produced in.
Research conducted on taking an integrated policy approach to both air pollution and climate change has shown that designing policies to mitigate climate change and reduce air pollution can offer a number of synergies. Combining clean air and climate strategies will give policymakers and planners the tools to better comprehend, compare, and consider the effects of both issues on global warming and the local benefits that emerge from air pollution reductions. Moreover, adopting an integrated approach creates a stronger basis for policy decisions as countries will be presented with win-win scenarios for both public health and the climate. Studies have also found that creating clean energy policies that confront both climate change and clean air has the potential to create even greater health benefits compared to climate policies alone.
It is yet to be seen how this can be meaningfully implemented and achieved on a global scale. However, some researchers have suggested that we could attempt to trial an established system across select cities and industries that coordinates clean air measures and climate change mitigation measures. This system would see significant and strategic changes being made in terms of economic policies, planning, laws, regulations and standards. What are some of your suggestions?
The Mental Health Impacts of Climate Change & Air Pollution
As previously mentioned, Clean Air Day 2023 is focused on raising awareness about the health impacts of air pollution on the brain and the mind. We already know that climate change and global warming increases the amount of pollutants in the air, which will only further contribute to this problem.
Whilst the connection between air pollution and mental health is a more recent research topic that is only just emerging, the links between climate change and mental health have been more widely reported on. There are a number of ways in which the climate crisis can affect our mental health, both directly and indirectly.
Those directly impacted by climate change and the increase in extreme weather events may witness serious injury or death, which could result in increased levels of psychological distress and even develop into more serious mental health problems as a result of witnessing these traumatic events. Moreover, extreme climatic events have the potential to contribute to food and water insecurity, homelessness, and unemployment, which can also detrimentally impact mental health and wellbeing.
On a more indirect level, more people have reported experiencing psychological reactions related to climate change, such as feeling helpless, hopeless, and anxious when confronted with the prospect of tackling an issue as global and complex as the climate crisis. Others have also reported grieving the loss of wildlife and nature as a direct result of climate change and environmental degradation.
For example, the University of Bath recently conducted a global survey which indicated that around four in ten young people fear having children as a result of climate change. That being said, it is important to note that emerging evidence also suggests that in some cases, increased levels of climate anxiety have been linked to higher levels of changed behaviour that actually benefits the environment.
In response to this connection between mental health and climate change, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged all countries to incorporate mental health support in their response to the climate crisis, with recommendations for governments, including, integrating mental health support with climate action, and incorporating climate considerations within mental health programmes. Whether countries choose to act on this advice is yet to be seen.
Overall, this Clean Air Day is about learning more about air pollution, spreading the word, and taking action to make our air cleaner and healthier for everyone. You can find a variety of free online resources here and learn more about air pollution on the Clean Air Hub, which we recommend as a great starting point to expand your knowledge.
Moving forward, we hope that air pollution and climate change will start to be tackled together, given the many similarities both issues share and the countless benefits that may emerge for public health and the planet as a result of these synergies.