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Blog 28 July 2022

10 reflections on clean air in 2021

Eve Alcock
With each year that goes by, we're learning more and more about what works, and what doesn't when it comes to delivering clean air for all. As we publish our 2021 Annual Report, we look back at 10 reflections on clean air in 2021.

Momentum on clean air grew in 2021. COVID-19 brought public attention to respiratory health. The World Health Organization (WHO) presented clear evidence of how air pollution damages health and tightened their Air Quality Guidelines accordingly. Global leaders at COP26 highlighted the risks that greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels pose to planetary health.

While we’ve achieved a lot throughout 2021, we’ve also learned some critical lessons on the barriers and opportunities the wider movement needs to address if we want to deliver clean air for all.

As we publish our annual report, here are 10 of our top reflections from 2021:

  1. The air quality field is still massively underfunded. Less than 1% of all aid and philanthropic funding goes to improving air quality. The volume and pace of funding doesn’t match the 153% rise (in the last 30 years) of deaths caused by air pollution in low- and middle-income countries, especially in Africa and Latin America. To find out more about the State of Global Air Quality Funding, check out our research
  2. There is no safe level of air pollution. A new study by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) showed that even low level exposure to air pollution significantly increased the chances of becoming ill with cancers and respiratory illnesses. The WHO’s updated Air Quality Guidelines reduced their air pollution guidelines to new, stricter limits. It estimated that  six million early deaths can be avoided if current air pollution levels are reduced in line with the new guidelines.
  3. Many climate decisions ignore the health, economic and social co-benefits of cleaner air. This is despite air pollution and climate change sharing a number of common causes. Our research found that if air quality benefits are considered, many climate change interventions flip from net-cost to net-benefit. A collective, well-resourced approach to improving air quality can also help advance progress on a multitude of other issues: reducing inequality by protecting the most vulnerable, boosting productivity, improving children’s well-being and mitigating climate change.
  4. Local air quality data is a pre-requisite for effective action on Africa’s urgent air pollution problem. However, only 7 out of 54 countries in Africa have reliable, real-time air quality monitoring. Find out more how we are beginning to address the problem.
  5. Disadvantaged groups, often the most affected, tend to be the least included in clean air work. Analysis by our grantee EDF Europe showed that pollution is significantly higher around London schools with more students from deprived areas, or with a higher proportion of students of colour. Action for clean air needs to reach disadvantaged groups and ensure their perspectives and experience are understood by policy makers.
  6. Building local support for clean air measures through consultation and engagement is vital. Not only does it unlock political support, but it pre-empts potential pushback and enables measures like clean air zones to be implemented quickly and positively.
  7. Air quality debates are being dragged into the culture wars. We must become better equipped to respond to polarising  arguments such as the idea that tackling air pollution is a ‘war on motorists’. This calls for a deeper understanding of public attitudes to air pollution.
  8. Engaging with a few key champions in the health care sector is the best starting point. This is preferable to engaging with the health sector as a whole due to the ongoing focus on the pandemic. Some high profile champions have built platforms to influence policy during the pandemic, and many respiratory doctors are now on high-level advisory panels. This is a model of engagement that could be replicated for air quality.
  9. Businesses are relative newcomers to the issue of air pollution. First-movers have been drawn to the issue largely because air pollution affects everyone. The greater focus on the health impact of pollution might make it more relevant to businesses’ stakeholders. Clean air is an opportunity for a conversation about the human impact of climate.
  10. International networking opportunities are needed for the clean air movement. The Clean Air Fund plays a role in cross-fertilising ideas. For example, we facilitated a workshop on clean air zone implementation to share insights from the UK with policy makers in Poland. We also supported the use of campaign tools like lungs posters across Bulgaria, India, Poland and the UK. We need to systematically identifying ‘bright spots’ of good practice and facilitate discussions among campaigners about what works.

To learn more about what we’ve learnt and achieved over the last year, read our 2021 annual report.