Energy transition for better air quality: a public health issue

Maria P. Neira
Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, World Health Organization (WHO)

The World Health Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations concerned with international public health. Problems raised by indoor air quality are at the heart of its mission and action. Causing over 3.3 million deaths every year, domestic air pollution is particularly prevalent in regions where income is low or modest, as households will often use highly polluting energy sources for heating and cooking. It is estimated that over half of the world’s population uses sources of energy for heating and cooking whose fumes are toxic to human health and the environment. Soot particle pollution is extremely toxic for the airways and is something that women and children are particularly exposed to. Indoor air pollution is responsible for serious illnesses like pneumonia and heart disease.

There are innumerable political and economic obstacles to energy transition in such regions. It is essential to initiate dialogue and cooperation between politicians and public health specialists to alert public opinion to the relationship between air quality and climate change and to enact public health policies that will anticipate and prevent pollution rather than remedy it subsequently. It is equally essential to stress the importance of cooperation between public health actors and those sectors of the economy that generate the most pollution, in order to bring about meaningful changes in public health.