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Illustrative image: According to figures from the Mayor of London, World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limits for air pollution are broken in 99 per cent of the British capital, agency reports said. Image Credit: AP

“I can’t breathe!”

These three words from George Floyd, as his life was being snuffed out by a white police officer in the US, later became the rallying point of the Black Lives Matter movement. A truly iconic moment for the battle for equality.

However, I am using these words in a different context.

We start this story with the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who died of asthma in England almost eight years ago. Last week, as per the ruling of a coroner’s inquest in London, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah became the first person in Britain to officially have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

The hearing sets a new legal precedent as it found poor air quality contributed to the death of Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, agencies reported.

According to reports, the family lived less than 30 metres from the South Circular, a busy and regularly congested arterial road, in Lewisham, southeast London.

In the ruling on Wednesday, Assistant Coroner Philip Barlow in London said air pollution had significantly helped induce and exacerbate Ella’s asthma, adding that she had been exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in excess of World Health Organisation guidelines.

“The principal source of her exposure was traffic emissions,” Barlow, of the London Inner South Coroner’s Court, said in his conclusion, according to a New York Times report.

Prof Sir Stephen Holgate, a professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, earlier told Southwark Coroner’s Court during the inquest that air pollution had been known as an exacerbating factor in asthmatics, including children, ‘for at least 40 years, if not longer’, according to a BBC report.

Sir Stephen told the inquest it was “almost certain” that Ella’s asthma would have been “substantially less severe” if the concentration of pollution in the local area had been within the limits, the report said.

So, Adoo-Kissi-Debrah died, because she, literally, couldn’t breathe the foul air of her neighbourhood.

Let us look at some startling figures in this regard.

According to figures from the Mayor of London, World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limits for air pollution are broken in 99 per cent of the British capital, agency reports said.

The WHO says air pollution kills some seven million people across the globe every year and nine out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds guideline limits on pollutants. Low- and middle-income countries are worst affected and the problem contributes to premature deaths.

Despite the temporary respite to global pollution levels due to closures related to COVID-19, recently released data show that human activity is taking its toll on our planet.

Temperatures at Death Valley, California, recorded an astounding 54.4 degrees Celsius this year, the hottest levels the world has seen in 80 years. In the Arctic, record wildfires and a prolonged heatwave led to temperatures reaching an unheard-of level of 38 degrees Celsius in June this year. As a result of these unprecedented temperatures, the Arctic sea ice thinned to record low levels between July and October.

The catastrophic scenario are not merely visible in this grim figures related to global warming. Extensive droughts have been reported across the world, with the Swiss city of Geneva suffering a dry spell of 43 days in spring. In South America, too, a near-record drought has caused heavy losses in farming.

On the other hand, extensive flooding due to heavy rains has killed hundreds of people in Kenya and Sudan. In South Asia, more than 2,000 people have been killed in record summer rains and flooding. The Atlantic Ocean has recorded 30 named storms this year, and a record 12 storms have made landfalls in the US.

The International Monetary Fund has also voiced its concern over the threats posed by climate change. “Climate change remains a clear and present threat, yet actions to fight it have fallen short,” the global lending body says in its annual report, A Year Like No Other, released earlier this month.

As part of the solution, the IMF strongly advocates a carbon tax on companies, depending on their emission levels. According to its estimate, high taxation can bring about a lowering of global temperatures by as much as 2 per cent over this century.

With COVID-19 ravaging the world for most of this year, it is quite likely that in the zeal to get back their economies back on track to revive the livelihoods of billions, governments may allow pollution concerns to take a back seat. And that sort of thinking will be nothing short of disastrous.

The only silver lining in this otherwise gloomy scenario is that while the current US President Donald Trump famously proclaimed that “Climate Change is a hoax” and withdrew his country from the Paris Agreement, his successor, President-Elect Joe Biden, is putting this on the top of his agenda. Already we are hearing of new teams being formed to tackle the problem.

With concerted global action, we will hope deaths like those of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah will not occur again.