Eliud Kipchoge training (© Getty Images)
Marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge joined key figures from Athletics Kenya at a virtual event to commemorate the second International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies in Nairobi on Tuesday (7).
The event, organised by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the Stockholm Environment Institute and telecom firm Safaricom, addressed the theme 'Healthy Air, Healthy Planet' which aimed to emphasize the correlation between human and planetary health.
During his presentation, Kipchoge, the two-time Olympic marathon champion, called on Kenyans to dedicate their birthdays to environment conservation.
“Plant a tree on your special day and in two years, we will be breathing better air. This is not rocket science,” he said. "We must protect that which provides us with clean air, clean water and is a perfect training ground for our athletes.”
Some may remember that last year, Kipchoge adopted 50 hectares of forest land in Kaptagat, explaining at the time that he did so as a “challenge to individuals, corporate entities, NGOs and citizens to conserve forests”. Asked what elite athletes can do to raise awareness about air quality issues and air pollution, which leads to more than seven million deaths each year, Kipchoge said that athletes should actively advocate for climate action and clean air so that it is in the forefront of all minds and that they should attend conferences and listen to stakeholders because as influencers, they can use social media to spread awareness.
Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei, another of the key speakers, spoke about recent milestones achieved by the federation including their decision to sign the United Nations Climate Change (UNCC) Sports for Climate Action Framework, participation in a 20-month air quality research project conducted at Kasarani Stadium and in the clinical and environmental research conducted during the World Athletics U20 Championships in Nairobi last month.
“It comes as no surprise that all around us, we are witnessing deteriorating air quality due to increase in air pollution, which is made worse by the impacts of climate change,” Tuwei said. “As members of the sports fraternity, we recognise the problem of air pollution, and the challenges brought about by climate change as these are now affecting our competitions more directly than in the recent past.”
Tuwei said that in collaboration with World Athletics, these initiatives were aimed at helping the federation better understand air quality conditions at Kasarani Stadium and their impact on the health and performance of athletes and others from the area. He further cited the persistent effects of climate change and pollution and their impact on sporting events such as the marathon competitions at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. “We do not want to sit back, we want to be part of the solution,” Tuwei said.
Long-time peace activist and women’s marathon pioneer Tegla Loroupe spoke about how pollution in cites is becoming a disadvantage for elite athletes compared to those training and living in rural areas. Equally worrisome, she said, is the impact pollution is having on children born in urban communities. Noting that the degradation of the environment is of universal concern, Loroupe said: “It is not a political problem, this is a global problem. Let’s come together because at the end of the day, we are the ones suffering.”
Loroupe said that without respect for the environment, there can be no peace because like wars, environmental factors contribute to the fate of millions of people around the world.
Newly installed air quality billboard on Nairobi's Mbagathi Way Road (UNEP)
Other participants recalled that some of the local causes of pollution such as industrial sector emissions, waste disposal and open burning are manmade, and therefore controllable. The UN Agenda 21 stipulates that every major city must have an AQ management system.
Summarising the objectives of the day’s discussion, Sean Khan, the Programme Manager at the UN Environment Programme’s Global Environment Monitoring System for Air (GEMS Air), noted:
· To raise awareness of the sources and effects of air pollution on human and planetary health and the measures available to improve air quality
· To demonstrate the close links of air quality to other environmental and developmental challenges such as climate change as well as sustainable urbanisation, transport, energy generation, and agriculture
· To reinforce the message that Air Quality Management (AQM) has climate benefits and can help countries fulfil their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)
· To bring together all relevant stakeholders working on this topic, at all levels, to strengthen inclusive and multisectoral partnerships to gain momentum for concerted national, regional and international approaches to reduce air pollution
· To recognise that air pollution disproportionately affects women, children and older persons, and has negative impacts on ecosystems
By undertaking the above, UNEP aims to:
· Substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from air pollution by 2030, including potential new evidence linking air pollution to increased vulnerability to COVID-19
· Strengthen international cooperation at the global, regional and subregional levels in various areas related to improving air quality, including the collection and utilisation of disaggregated data, joint research and development, and the sharing of best practices
· Raise public awareness at all levels and to promote and facilitate actions to improve air quality, bearing in mind that clean air is important for the health and livelihood of people
· Acknowledge that improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation and that climate change mitigation efforts can improve air quality
· Reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management by 2030
The event was also supported by Kenya’s Ministry of Environment & Forestry, the National Environment Management Authority of Kenya (NEMA) and the Nairobi County Government.
Alice Annibali for World Athletics