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Working Together to Tackle Environmental Challenges

2014 August 1

By Walker Smith

The United Nations Environment Program Compound in Nairobi, Kenya, where the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly of the UNEP, or UNEA, was held.

As I sat in traffic on my way back to the Nairobi airport, I watched the children weaving between the old taxis and buses that clog Nairobi’s streets, breathing in the black plumes pouring out of the tailpipes. The sight was a powerful reminder of why I’d traveled to Nairobi in the first place – for the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEA.

Over 160 nations came together at the first UNEA to address the critical environmental challenges facing the world today, like air quality, marine debris, illegal trade in wildlife, and hazardous waste. UNEA provided its participants with an opportunity to discuss, learn, negotiate, and, most importantly, identify concrete ways to improve environmental quality around the globe.

One of the goals of the U.S. delegation attending UNEA was to ensure that this nearly universal group of nations strengthened the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) efforts to improve air quality around the world. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 7 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012 alone, making air pollution the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Poor air quality has a staggeringly high human cost, but it’s an issue we can, and must, do something about.

We’ve already made progress domestically and abroad. In the United States from 1970 to 2012, Clean Air Act programs have lowered levels of six common air pollutants by 72 percent! Internationally, the UNEP-led Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) has worked tirelessly to remove lead from fuels since its founding in 2002. Through successful efforts to eliminate leaded gas in all but 6 countries, we avoid 1.2 million premature deaths per year – 125,000 of which are children.

Looking out the car window, I thought about the progress we had made through PCFV and efforts like it, but also of the steps still to be taken. Without these efforts, the children along the road beside me would be breathing in lead, a powerful neurotoxin with irreversible health impacts; however, many of them are still exposed on a daily basis to sulfur dioxide and black carbon from vehicles and from dirty stoves in their homes. And, in the United States, we still feel the effects of air pollution, generated from both domestic sources and across the ocean.

The world faces serious environmental threats, many of which cannot be solved by one country alone. Working through UNEA and with partners like UNEP, we’ill continue to move forward, finding new solutions and forming partnerships to help us tackle these challenges. I hope one day children in Nairobi, and around the world, will live and play in a cleaner, healthier environment.

About the author: Walker Smith has served as the Director of the Office of Global Affairs & Policy in the Office of International & Tribal Affairs since 2009. She previously served as Director of the Office of Civil Enforcement at EPA and as the Principal Deputy Chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section in the Department of Justice.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Bob permalink
    August 1, 2014

    When a small boy I remember going to L.A. in the early 60s. A layer of smog laid over the city. My eyes and lungs burned it was so bad. Smog along with acid rain was truly a health problem. Americans knew we had a problem and needed to deal with it. So we did and now there isn’t a city inside the U.S. covered with a brown cloud of pollution and that I am thankful for.

    Living in Arizona I know what hot is. I have worked in 127 degrees heat and I thank God we haven’t seen heat like that for seven years. The EPA has been given power our Constitution forbids it to have and you have abused that authority. I don’t care what your studies show your assault on the coal industry and calling anyone not believing in global warming, now changed to climate change to better fit your agenda is just plain ignorant doesn’t fly with common sense.

    No longer do my eyes and lungs burn. I haven’t seen a summer with blistering heat for seven years and I would like to know how you reached the figure of 7 million a year die from the air we breath.

    The climate change you preach was once call Summer, Winter, Spring and Fall. The carbon you say you want to rid us of, if my science is right everything that is green on this earth breaths that carbon, replacing it with oxygen. Taking coal out of the equation before the technology exist to replace it will only cost jobs, raise rates, and create shortages. With fuel near tripled since 2008 and wages down it would seem this is one fact you refuse to acknowledge.

    The Constitution grants the Federal Government 30 tasks to preform. Policing the land, air, and water isn’t one of them. I do appreciate your hard work you have done in all three but now you have overstepped the authority never granted you by the documents that founded this nation and should at the very least cut your work force along with the more than 2,000 government agencies task to do the 30 jobs you are assigned like guarding our borders instead of flooding the ones trying to do it with outrageous regulations.

  2. Eric Johnson permalink
    August 5, 2014

    Keep working on environmental problems

  3. Adam @AguaWeb permalink
    August 27, 2014

    The environmental issues that people encounter nowadays cannot be simply solved with the country working alone. These problems can be properly addressed if all the countries and organizations around the globe will go hand in hand in solving them.

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