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2021 – a huge year for the push to clean our air, and tackle lots of other problems in the process

2020 was a year like no other. What did it teach us about the need and opportunity to clean our air, and how should we act on these lessons?

2020 was a year like no other. For the clean air community, it left a mixture of feelings. Like everybody else we continue to count the terrible cost of the pandemic to our wellbeing, health, economies and societies.

There are no silver linings in a situation like this, but there are lessons, and ways to do things differently in future. COVID-19 has underlined some home truths about the relationship between the health of the planet and of humanity, and driven home the need to protect them together.

As air pollution shares many of the same causes as climate change, cleaning our air is one of the most effective ways to tackle our most pressing challenges together. It has worsened the impact of COVID-19 by weakening people’s respiratory and cardiovascular systems, resulting in more hospitalisations and deaths. These come on top of the seven million premature deaths air pollution causes every year, largely linked to strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.

It is easy to switch off when faced with these kinds of global statistics about the impact of pollution. But these numbers represent real human suffering. Just look at the landmark ruling of a UK coroner in December, who found that air pollution from London traffic contributed to nine year old Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death. My colleague Imo Martineau set out the wider context and our hopes that this will bring further change ahead of that decision.

For our team, 2020 was a busy year. Our model involves bringing together a wide range of partners with complementary approaches to see what can be learned and replicated elsewhere. Practically, this tends to mean showing the global scale of the problem and the most effective, scalable solutions to tackle it.

Highlights include a report from the UK’s CBI which showed that the UK could save £1.6 billion each year by achieving the guidelines set by the WHO for air quality. Meanwhile our partners at Kings College London and Purpose worked on communicating the impact of pollution in ways that motivate action, producing these toolkits for UK and Polish audiences. OpenAQ added 24 new countries to its groundbreaking air quality data website and chalked up 426m downloads of specific data points, while in Poland air quality was discussed for the first time by Presidential candidates due to the stellar work of our partners. In India, air pollution expert Dr Arvind Kumar became a medical adviser on his national COVID committee and in China our partner EDF supported local government to enforce air quality rules, resulting in 400 pollution hotspots being detected each month and pollution improving by an average of 40% at sites post-inspection.

Momentum is building! Watch below how Sofia will be piloting the first on-demand electric buses in 2021, and how Sofia GREEN are organising a series of hackathons on air quality in the Bulgarian capital. Or drink in Iyad Kheirbek’s of C40 Cities enthusiasm for the “cycling revolution” in some of the world’s most iconic cities.

There are strong foundations, but we must go quicker and faster. Last year we commissioned polling which showed widespread support for stricter laws and enforcement to tackle air pollution following the COVID-19 crisis. We published this alongside recommendations for how governments could achieve this in their recovery plans. Meanwhile on the UN’s first international Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies we released a report highlighting the urgent need for more and better targeted funding to tackle air pollution, with support from former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The need is clear, as is the political mandate – now we need innovative scalable solutions, developed by a strong network of partners and allies.

We will be working with our partners to push for these in our target regions in 2021, as well as continuing to identify gaps and solutions in a global picture in which we hope the Biden administration will provide a welcome breath of fresh air and momentum. Please sign up to our newsletter and social feeds to stay up to date and find out how you can get involved.