Air pollution is the fifth biggest killer by health risk factor worldwide. But this pressing global health and environmental problem is overlooked by philanthropic foundations.
Philanthropic funding for air quality remains low – especially compared to international development funding for air quality – but foundations play a key role in introducing innovative approaches, advocacy and influencing key global players.
As part of the State of Global Air Quality Funding 2022, we provide the only global analysis of philanthropic funding for air quality in 2015-2021. We highlight trends, gaps and recommendations for philanthropic funders to catalyse systemic change for people and planet.
Trends and gaps in philanthropic funding
Air quality funding at an all-time high, but still only 0.1% of total philanthropic spending
In 2021, total philanthropic air quality funding rose by 36% to an all-time high of $63.8 million, but remains less than 0.1% of total philanthropic spending.
The substantial jump between 2020 and 2021 was partly driven by a small number of large grants, indicating an increased interest in air quality from big foundations and a shift in funding practices. Despite the continuous growth in funding over the past six years, foundations still allocate a small proportion of their funding to combatting air pollution.
In 2020, philanthropic foundation funding totaled approximately $260 billion, meaning for every $1000 granted, just $0.25 went to combatting ambient air pollution. Foundations are committing a lower proportion of their total funding to air pollution compared to that of international development funders (0.5% in 2015-2020).
The number of foundations providing grants to air quality projects doubled between 2015 and 2021 (from 23 to 47), suggesting a growing awareness of the issue. At the same time, there seems to be an increasingly large pool of funding opportunities available to tackle air pollution, as the number of grantees has continued to increase, reaching an all-time high of 295 in 2021. With foundation funding continuing to grow year-on-year, the air quality field has shown it is able to absorb more and more funding, with expert organisations poised to produce transformative results if they receive the support they need.
What types of projects are foundations funding?
- Data: To improve the quantity, availability, transparency, accuracy or accessibility of air quality information and data.
- Impacts & Research: To increase research into and understanding of the impact of air pollution on health, the environment and the economy.
- Communications & Awareness: To raise awareness of air pollution, including campaigning, communications and events.
- Policy & Politics: To develop, promote, and transform public policies on air quality.
- Implementation: To invest in implementing infrastructure to improve air quality.
- Multiple/Undefined: To support core costs of an organisation focused on air quality (including field building), where multiple strategies were supported, or where it was not possible to assign an activity type.
Africa, Latin America and most of Asia are missing out
The US, China and India continued to receive the bulk of philanthropic funding for air quality. During 2015-2021 these countries have cumulatively attracted 83% of total funding, while global projects have made up an additional 13%.
Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia continue to receive the least funding, despite having the greatest potential gains. With a combined population of 3.9 billion people, these three regions account for half of the global population in 2021. Yet, they only received a combined 3.7% of total foundation funding to air quality in the same year.
The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) shows that the countries that have the highest concentrations of air pollution are also those most likely to benefit from air pollution policy and action. The ten countries most likely to benefit would see average life expectancy increase by more than 2.5 years if the World Health Organization’s guideline for PM2.5 were met. However, seven out of ten of these countries saw no foundation funding between 2015 and 2021.
Case study: strengthening air quality legislation in Brazil
In Brazil in 2018, a bill was proposed for a National Air Quality Policy. This suggested that clean air was moving up the government’s agenda, but the initial bill did not go far enough. Instituto Clima e Sociedade funded Instituto Saúde e Sustentabilidade (ISS) to mobilise a coalition of academics, civil society and industry to help strengthen the legislation and raise public awareness of air pollution.
- Shaping Brazil’s air quality agenda: ISS led a coalition including institutions such as Alana, International Council on Clean Transportation, and The Institute for Energy and the Environment to work with the congress of deputies to strengthen the bill. The coalition established a dialogue with deputies, building consensus along the way as the bill progressed through the committees. The National Policy for Air Quality Act, which was finally approved in July of 2022, will fill existing gaps in air quality regulations, establish clear responsibilities for air quality management and specifies the need to tackle air pollution and climate change together.
While the bill made its way through the committees, the coalition pushed clean air up the public agenda. Through debates and public hearings with experts, the coalition were able to highlight the need for the national monitoring network, for more emissions restrictions and targets aligned with the World Health Organization’s guidelines.
- The power of collaboration: The success of the coalition approach among industry, civil society, and academics shows the capacity of civil society to coordinate the field and create momentum to shift the dial on air quality. It also highlights how impactful it is to use the different expertise of institutions, bringing them together to create long lasting legislative and policy change to improve people’s health and the environment. The clean air sector can now use this momentum to build on the success of the bill and ensure effective implementation pollution reduction.
Climate foundations leading the way
The majority of philanthropic spending on air quality continues to come from foundations working on climate, environment or energy (CEE). However, foundations focused on health, social justice and childhood development are increasingly engaging with the clean air agenda.
The majority of foundation-funded air quality projects are simultaneously aiming to tackle climate change. But just 2% of total foundation climate mitigation funding is realising the health and economic benefits associated with improved air quality.
Funding from foundations with a health focus rose sharply between 2020 and 2021, increasing by 46% from $23 million to $33 million. While this represents substantial progress, this level of funding still does not match the scale of the health problem posed by air pollution. In addition, most of this funding is from foundations that work on both CEE and health – just $2 million was spent in 2021 by health funders not working on climate or the environment. Billions of dollars are granted out by foundations across health topics each year and a significant shift in perspectives on air quality is still needed to fully leverage this pool of funding.
Building on our overall recommendations for funders, below are further actions for philanthropic funders:
1. Invest more in improving ambient air pollution for better public health, childhood development, social justice, sustainable cities and climate outcomes. Different types of funders can increase their engagement with the issue in different ways:
- Climate, energy and environment funders should integrate air quality considerations and evaluations into a larger proportion of their work, uncovering previously unrealised health and economic impacts and simultaneously strengthening an additional push for reduced emissions.
- Funders working on health, early childhood development and cities and mobility, should accelerate air quality funding or start to fund such projects, focusing on synergistic areas e.g., improving air quality around schools.
- There is a need for funders with specialist air quality programmes of work – especially those working on health, childhood development, equity, climate and urban design – to help build clean air expertise, capacity and collaborations through their funding to advance progress.
2. Funders making ‘big bets’ on structural solutions to complex problems should both (i) consider air pollution as a worthy standalone area for investment that can achieve transformative impact; and (ii) deeply integrate air quality into project design and evaluation if the work covers key parallel topics such as fossil fuel use, non-communicable diseases and early childhood development.
3. Consider how their grant funding can be used to develop ‘proof of concept’ projects to help leverage investments from other funder types. Philanthropic foundations are able to pilot and innovate with more flexibility and tolerate higher levels of risk than development funders. As such, their funding can act as a stimulus, building localised cases for larger investments.
4. Collaborate, pool funds and share learning and best practices to ensure existing and new funders achieve maximum impact. The number and breadth of foundations making air quality grants is rising year-on-year, including very large funders making grants on the issue for the first time in 2021. Coordination and knowledge sharing between existing and new funders is needed to ensure maximum impact.
5. Apply a social justice and equity lens to air quality grant making to ensure that actions to improve ambient air quality are actively reducing the health and social disparities associated with air pollution, not maintaining or worsening them.