Working Together to Tackle Environmental Challenges

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.

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