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News 19 May 2020

5 steps businesses can take to protect air quality after COVID-19

Katherine Garrett-Cox
This piece first appeared on the World Economic Forum blog. Katherine Garrett-Cox is the Chief Executive Officer, Gulf International Bank (UK) Ltd and Clean Air Fund Chair.
  • Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year.
  • The COVID-19 crisis offers us a chance to address this.
  • The technology and policies are already available – it’s now down to governments and the private sector to act.

We are in the grip of a global public health crisis, the extent and final outcome of which is unknown. After a period of lockdown in many countries, and the consequent economic slowdown, these are uncertain times.

The clamour for clear-cut answers grows by the day. Questions revolve around how we got into the crisis, when restrictions will be eased, and how we can rebuild better economies. There is a lot at stake, and much uncertainty.

As hard as it may be to imagine this now, there are some potentially positive outcomes of this crisis, and opportunities to make lasting changes that will save lives while increasing our resilience for the long-term.

One issue that illustrates this perfectly is air pollution.

The WHO estimates that air pollution causes around seven million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections. It is a bigger killer than malaria, violence, HIV/AIDs, drugs and alcohol, and traffic accidents. And almost certainly COVID-19.

There is also some emerging evidence that shows the fatality rate from coronavirus is higher in polluted places, where people’s lung capacity is reduced from years of exposure to toxic air. This is no small problem, and – along with climate change – it deserves to be tackled with determination, sufficient resources and an openness to behavioural change.

Poor air quality in itself poses a risk to employee health. Air pollution in central London, for example, has been shown to cause the equivalent of over 650,000 sick days each year. Cities that have severe air pollution problems will struggle to recruit talent as they become viewed as undesirable places to work and live.

And yet this goes beyond our health. The World Bank has calculated that air pollution costs the global economy $225 billion dollars each year in lost labour income. Pollution and traffic congestion can disrupt daily business operations, while a recent study showed that “poor outdoor air quality is likely to have a negative impact on performance at work, even if you work indoors at a desk”.

As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, there is an opportunity to set ourselves on the path towards addressing this. Indeed, I think it is vitally important that we find a way to treat this crisis as a catalyst for change.

Companies are already starting to get involved in tackling air pollution, motivated by the opportunity to innovate in clean technologies, sustainable products and clean-air solutions, and because consumers want brands that are ethical and do good for the environment. In London, Google is helping to build the world’s largest network of air pollution sensors to measure neighbourhood-level air quality. In India, the Confederation of Indian Industry is mobilizing business leaders to commit to reducing air pollution. Asset managers around the world, including at GIB UK, are designing solutions that mobilise investment capital in support of clean air. And the IKEA Foundation is helping to increase the level of funding for collaborative air pollution philanthropy.

The solutions are available. We’ve already seen some progress: the fact that in London the Ultra-Low Emission Zone has already reduced NOx emissions by one-third shows how quickly we can see improvements when leaders in politics and business show ambition and leadership. The need for action is clear, and the technologies and policies are already available.

There are five things the private sector can focus on straight away:

1. Using any bailout funds received from the public purse in smart ways, with the dual purpose of transforming our industries so that they become part of a new, low-carbon economy.

2. Supporting national green new deal strategies, lowering carbon emissions while also investing in workers, and enabling them to adapt to new technologies.

3. Investing in innovation. The companies who get ahead of the curve will reshape low-carbon economies. After the financial crisis in 2008-09 we saw some industries bloom – the solar industry, for example.

4. Reduce pollutants, and include measurement and reporting of them in greenhouse gas accounting. This includes engaging stakeholders in their supply chain to reduce air pollution themselves.

5. Promote best practices and showcase their successful efforts.

We all want to create a tomorrow in which breathing clean air is not only a human right, but a daily reality for everybody. In order to achieve that, we must innovate and collaborate to deliver much more ambitious cuts in emissions than we do today. The need for a rapid response in the face of a silent enemy should live with us forever. Now is the time for bold action.

This article was first published on World Economic Forum and is reprinted with permission.

A partnership with the World Economic Forum is in place to protect public health by mobilizing multi-stakeholder action on ambient air pollution. The Forum will build a cohort of leaders to catalyze corporate and political will; create a shared set of tools and facts for prioritizing actions; drive thought leadership; deliver concrete action as well as share lessons learned.