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The UN regards clean air as a basic human right, yet most people in the world breathe polluted air

Donna Coutts, June 4, 2019 6:30PM Kids News

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Buildings are shrouded in smog on December 8, 2013 in Lianyungang, China. Picture: Getty Images media_cameraBuildings are shrouded in smog on December 8, 2013 in Lianyungang, China. Picture: Getty Images


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Only one in every 10 people on Earth gets to breathe fresh air.

That means nine out of 10 people around the world spend their lives breathing polluted air that is damaging their health and possibly shortening their life.

This startling statistic was released by the United Nations* ahead of World Environment Day, Wednesday June 5.

This year’s World Environment Day theme is air pollution.

The United Nations has called air pollution a global* public health emergency. It regards clean air to breathe as a basic human right.

Mexico City Faces High Levels Of Air Pollution media_cameraBuildings barely visible through the air pollution in Mexico City, Mexico on May 14. Picture: Getty Images

The UN also regards clean water and adequate sanitation*, healthy and sustainably produced food, a non-toxic* environment, healthy biodiversity* and a safe climate as basic human rights.

David Boyd, the UN’s Special Rapporteur* on human rights and the environment, called on everyone to take urgent action to improve air quality to fulfil their human rights obligations*.

“The right to a healthy environment is fundamental* to human wellbeing and is legally recognised by over 150 States* at the national and regional levels. It should be globally reaffirmed* to ensure the enjoyment of this right by everyone, everywhere.”

Millions of people every year — including hundreds of thousands of children — die younger than they should because they are breathing polluted air.

media_cameraStudents wear face masks during a ceremony at Zocalo Square in Mexico City, Mexico on May 17, 2019 in thick smog during an air pollution alert. Schools were closed and sports events were cancelled or moved. Picture: AFP

China is hosting this year’s World Environment Day, so that’s where the official celebrations take place. The focus on the host country helps highlight the environmental challenges it faces and supports worldwide efforts to address them.

Though China’s capital city, Beijing, is often the example people use when they talk about air pollution, the air quality is improving.

Mr Boyd described the efforts of China to tackle air pollution, as a “success story.”

The concentration of fine particulates — the tiny, invisible airborne* particles that are largely responsible for deaths and illnesses from air pollution — has fallen by a third in recent years.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that, as well as claiming millions of lives every year, and damaging children’s development, many air pollutants are also causing global warming. Mr Guterres called on the international community to “tax pollution, not people” and stop building coal plants.

Air pollution kills 7 million people a year


The UN has outlined five reasons we should all care about air pollution.

  1. Polluted air is creating a health emergency. Overall, air pollution is responsible for more deaths than many other risk factors, including malnutrition and not doing enough exercise.
  2. Children are most at risk. Globally, 93 per cent of children breathe air that is considered unsafe by the World Health Organisation.
  3. Pollution and poverty go hand in hand. Those that experience the worst air are often the poorest and least able to change how and where they live.
  4. Air pollution costs. The UN estimates that achieving the Paris Agreement actions would cost the world $31.6 trillion, while reducing air pollution could save the world $77.5 trillion.
  5. The right to clean air is a human right. The right to a healthy environment is in the constitution* and laws of more than 155 countries, which means it is against the law for a government not to try to provide clean air to breathe.


  • Plant trees
  • Reduce how much waste you produce that goes to landfill
  • Find ways to get around without polluting


  • Have a tree planting day
  • Encourage everyone to walk, ride or take public transport to school
  • Ask parents to stop keeping their car engines going at pick-up time
  • Organise to have air quality measured and get professional advice about how to make improvements
  • Have a big day of researching and planning how to improve air quality at school
  • Hold a celebration day to raise awareness about air pollution using the research you’ve done

Source: United Nations


  • United Nations: international organisation to help countries work together
  • global: the whole world
  • sanitation: public health needs such as clean water and disposal of human waste
  • non-toxic: not poisonous
  • biodiversity: how broad the range of plants and animals is
  • rapporteur: independent expert
  • obligations: the things you are supposed to do
  • fundamental: the basic, important things at the foundation of something
  • States: countries
  • reaffirmed: state again strongly
  • airborne: carried in the air
  • constitution: basic set of laws and ideals of an organisation or country


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  1. What is the theme of World Environment Day?
  2. List the basic human rights mentioned.
  3. Is the air in Beijing becoming more or less polluted?
  4. According to the UN, would reducing air pollution save money?
  5. Name three things you can do to minimise air pollution.



1. World Environment Day
Work with a partner and create a catchy jingle. A jingle is a short song or tune used in advertising. Yours should be about why clean air is vitally important and what we need to do to preserve it. If you have time perform your jingles to your classmates.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Music, Personal and Social

2. Extension
The United Nations regards clean air to breathe as a basic human right. Explain in your own words whether you agree or disagree with this statement and why.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative Thinking

Pick one of the suggested things that your school could do and write a convincing argument to the school council requesting that this is what the school participates in. It doesn’t need to be on World Environment Day itself, maybe you can try and do it before the end of Term 2?

Use your VCOP skills to be as convincing as possible.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What are you, your family and your school going to do to raise awareness about and minimise air pollution?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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