Visitors and world leaders attending the COP 25 Climate Conference here are being immersed in simulated smog conditions of Indian capital New Delhi -- a reality for millions of residents living in one of the most polluted cities in the world -- as part of a creative drive for urgent action against air pollution. One or two minutes inside London-based artist Michael Pinsky's pollution pods and visitors begin experiencing shortness of breath.
"I have tried to distil the whole bodily sense of being in each place through these pollutions pods. Being in Sao Paulo, for example, seems like a forest sanctuary as compared to living in the Indian capital New Delhi, until your eyes start to get wet from the sensation of ethanol. On the other hand Tautra is unlike any air you'll have ever breathed before. It is very pure," Pinksky told PTI.
He noted that while visitors to the pollution pods at COP25 will experience the sensation of air pollution for a few minutes, breathing toxic air is the reality for millions of people everyday of their lives.
However, there is nothing dangerous in the air in the pods as safe perfume blends and fog machines have been used to imitate the air quality of some of the world's most polluted cities – New Delhi, London, Beijing, Sao Paulo -- as well as one of the most pristine environments on the planet, Tautra in Norway.
Air pollution has been declared a public health priority by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels driving climate change, polluted air poisons nine out of ten people and causes over 7 million premature deaths every year.
Children are especially vulnerable, with nearly 6 lakh children dying prematurely every year from air pollution related diseases.
As part of the Clean Air Initiative, in which governments must commit to making air safe by 2030 at the latest, and to encourage urgent action on climate change, world leaders attending the COP25 Summit will be encouraged to walk through this viscerally powerful art installation.
"Michael Pinsky responded to a competition from a university in Norway in order to see if art can change people's views on climate change," the organisers told PTI on the sidelines of the event.
"He came up with concept of using air pollution which relates to climate change. He decided to change five different areas of the world to depict the conditions in which millions of people are living," they said.
The pods start from Norway which has some of the cleanest air in the world.
As people go around they can see the contrast between the different cities.
Most of the people leaving the pods are seen with expressions of shock.
The project was brought to Madrid by several agencies including the WHO.
"We need to agree unequivocally on the need for a world free of air pollution. We need all countries and cities to commit to meeting WHO standards for air quality," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO said in a statement.
Throughout the life course, exposure to air pollution is a major risk for chronic heart and respiratory disease and can inhibit proper brain and lung development in children.
A study published in The Lancet journal showed that 4 million cases of childhood asthma every year could be caused by air pollution resulting from traffic fumes.
"The true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs. The health burden of polluting energy sources is now so high, that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself," said Maria Neira, WHO, Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.
"When health is taken into account, climate change mitigation is an opportunity, not a cost," she said.
The pollution pods have been experienced by over 20,000 people since their launch at the Starmus Festival in Norway in June 2018.
Cape Farewell, an international not-for-profit programme based in the UK to raise awareness about climate change through the arts, has managed a tour with locations including: London's Somerset House for Earth Day (April 2018); Place des Nations - at the UN building in Geneva - for the first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health (October 2018); and TED's annual flagship conference in Vancouver (April 2019).