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10 things we learned about clean air in 2020

Today we published our annual report where you can read about the progress we made in 2020 towards a future where everyone can breathe clean air. We are constantly learning about which approaches work (and don’t), where partnerships can be built and where gaps need to be filled. These are our top 10 insights from the past year.

  1. No single global organisation or coalition has a mandate to set or track targets on air quality, leading to a lack of global coherence on air pollution and slow progress.
    Where climate has the UNFCCC, IPCC and COP, air quality has no equivalent. Instead responsibility is fragmented across multiple agencies and there is a lack of collectively acknowledged global science, methodologies, convenings and headline targets to work towards cooperatively in the coming years. We intend to build partnerships with existing institutions to help drive a coordinated response and create momentum towards global targets.
  2. Within national and local governments, air quality sits across different departments, making coordination – and a shared agenda – hard to achieve.
    Air quality often sits within environment departments, despite the issue also affecting health and social care and the economy as a whole. Though limited, we know that effective coordination creates progress. E.g. The UK’s environment ministry and transport ministry set up a Joint Air Quality Unit in 2018 to deliver the Government’s NO2 reduction strategies. It has since confirmed eight clean air zones outside of London with more cities due to follow suit. We will continue to support the adoption of cross-government collaboration in our lighthouse geographies.
  3. Net zero plans often don’t consider air pollution explicitly, risking climate action that makes air quality worse.
    As action on climate change mitigation ramps up, we must ensure that air quality is integrated within net zero plans from the outset. Some actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (for example the burning of biomass) have a negative impact on air pollution and also human health. Our partner Pure Earth, mapped the co-benefits for health and climate change for 22 practical air pollution interventions. We can use this in our engagement with policy-makers to ensure climate action also benefits air quality and people’s health.
  4. Meeting national targets on air pollution requires effective communication, capacity, funding and devolved power at a local level. Even where national air quality targets are ambitious, the responsibility for implementing measures to meet them lies with local governments who are often underfunded and lack capacity to take meaningful action.That’s why we continue to work with partners like C40, who have helped build local government capacity for 43 cities in the C40 Air Quality Network, from Addis Ababa to Quezon City.
  5. Making the economic case for clean air is critical as we build back better from COVID-related economic losses. There are significant economic costs to air pollution beyond healthcare costs alone. As countries begin to tackle the economic consequences of the COVID pandemic, investing-to-save will become a priority. Governments and businesses alike are more likely to engage with action on air pollution if they can see the productivity benefits of clean air. Our Breathing life into the UK economy report from the Confederation of British Industry found the UK economy could benefit from £1.6 billion every year if it were to meet WHO guidelines for air quality. This is on top of the cost to social care and the NHS. We have since replicated this study in India, and will continue to focus on this topic in all ‘lighthouse geographies. as countries begin to focus on economic recovery.
  6. Only half of the world’s governments produce air quality data, but low-cost monitors can help fill these data gaps. Low-cost monitors are becoming more readily available and are showing huge potential. Data from Breathe London low-cost monitors, a project we supported in 2020, has been cited by local councils to discourage private car use, provided evidence justifying expansion of low emissions zones, prompted mayoral measures to further reduce pollution at schools and has contributed to official government reviews into the impact of lockdowns on air quality. Our new data strategy will drive our work to improve the production and accessibility of air quality data globally.
  7. The public responds to human stories of air pollution impact, but they are hard to find. Facts and statistics are important, but it’s the human stories that really resonate. There was global interest in the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah and the London coroner’s conclusion that air pollution was a direct causal factor in her death, making Ella the first person in the world to have air pollution included on her death certificate. The inquest followed years of tireless campaigning by her mother, Rosamund. Our challenge is to find more of these human stories and ensure they are shared widely.
  8. Introducing clean air measures too quickly and without a mandate or consultation can backfire. In the UK, the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods that were introduced quickly using COVID-recovery funds, faced significant opposition and many were removed by local authorities in response. In Poland and Bulgaria, some clean air policies have been revoked as a result of protests due to communications failure from municipality authorities. Policymakers need to be supported to communicate and engage with local communities before, during and after changes are introduced to avoid a backlash.
  9. The health sector has a leading role to play in communicating the impact of air pollution but new strategies need to be developed for engaging with a sector that is understandably focussed on the pandemic. Our YouGov Survey found that health professionals were most trusted by the public to speak on air pollution by the majority of respondents in Nigeria (93%), India (87%), Great Britain (81%), Bulgaria (76%) and Poland (74%). We will continue to identify and support medical champions for clean air, people like Dr Arvind Kumar in India and Dr Alex Simidhieve in Bulgaria. We will also look to support other strategies aimed at encouraging the health sector to get involved in local, national or global campaigns abut the major public health risk posed by dirty air. 
  10. Approaches to improving air quality based on airsheds (or geographic areas affected by the same air mass) will become increasingly necessary and will require significant regional cooperation. Air pollution knows no administrative boundaries, and pollution sources are located both inside and outside jurisdictions. The meteorology and geography of a place determines its major sources of air pollution. In Delhi, stubble burning in neighbouring states may contribute nothing in peak summer, but contribute more than half the pollution in winter. Therefore, addressing all sources of air pollution requires airshed based management, with institutions for coordination and cooperation across all sectors and jurisdictions over which the pollutants disperse.

To learn more about what we’ve learnt and achieved over the last year, read our annual report.