Nature and Biodiversity

Tackling air pollution can accelerate climate action – here's how


There is a strong case for businesses to include air pollution in climate action agendas. Image: REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

Roddy Weller
Manager, Clean Air, World Economic Forum
Shannon Engstrom
Specialist, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • Air pollution is harmful to human health, the economy and the planet.
  • Addressing air pollution can provide immediate and tangible benefits for people and communities, while also accelerating climate change efforts.
  • There is a strong case for business to include air pollution in climate action agendas – here’s how they can do it.

We all know we need urgent action if we are to have any chance of addressing climate change before humanity reaches the point of no return. Building a more sustainable and climate-resilient planet is the only policy choice if we’re to collectively ensure humanity’s future on Earth, Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), recently said.

The only question is, will we respond in time?

Reducing air pollution as a climate solution

All governments and sectors must be fully invested in raising climate ambition – and addressing air pollution could be one entry point. Unlike climate change, air pollution is an issue that is localized, immediate and tangibly effects people and communities today. In 2019, air pollution was the 4th-leading risk factor for early death worldwide, surpassed only by high blood pressure, tobacco use and poor diet.

Global air pollution-related healthcare costs are projected to increase from $21 billion in 2015 to $176 billion in 2060. Reducing emissions where they are most harmful to human health right now can also accelerate climate change efforts. Here are three ways businesses are tackling air pollution.

Have you read?

Solution 1: Google’s Project Air View

Google is raising public awareness through improved air quality monitoring. Google’s Project Air View has equipped Street View vehicles with air pollution sensors to measure air quality street-by-street, making over 500 million air measurements. They are partnering with cities like Copenhagen, Hamburg and London to publish open access street-level air quality insights.

With air-quality insights, the city of Copenhagen can encourage more sustainable transportation and create healthier bicycle and walking routes away from car traffic. Urban planners are also designing safe neighbourhoods that include “Thrive Zones”, with schools and playgrounds located away from high-pollution zones to provide young children with access to cleaner air.

Google Earth Engine Apps - Air Quality Explorer
Air quality insights can help cities encourage more sustainable transportation. Image: Google Project Air View

Solution 2: Biogen’s Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives

In September 2020, Biogen launched Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives, a 20-year, $250M initiative to actively advance the science behind the interrelated challenges of climate, health and equity. It’s the first Fortune 500 company that has committed to becoming fossil-fuel free across its operations by 2040.

Biogen encourages employees and suppliers to make changes to help them go fossil-fuel free. In the first year of the initiative, 300 employees have enrolled in renewable energy at home, 24% of their suppliers have committed to science-based targets and 16% of their suppliers have committed to source 100% renewable energy by 2030.

Solution 3: Siemens Mobility as a Service

Siemens Mobility is helping passengers switch from private vehicles to eco-friendly modes of transport by developing Mobility as a Service (MaaS). Often passengers need to travel through a maze of transportation modes and service providers when planning, booking and paying for their trip. With seamless integration of all types of transport modes into one place, multimodal travel can be an efficient, comfortable and sustainable choice. It can also empower passengers to make sustainable choices by allowing them to compare the environmental impact of their routing options. Siemens is launching its MaaS platforms in various countries such as Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain.

Researchers from Imperial College London suggest that encouraging modal behaviour change represents a win-win scenario that could reduce both overall concentrations of air pollution and the public’s exposure. By engaging communities in more “participatory” approaches, it may be more likely to eventually change norms.


There is a strong case for the private sector to include air pollution in their climate action agendas. By 2060, the annual number of lost working days due to air pollution is projected to reach 3.7 billion; it is currently around 1.2 billion. In the UK alone, research found that if clean air was prioritized and World Health Organization guidelines were met, the country could gain three million working days, 40,000 productive years and a £1.6 billion benefit every year.

For wider impact, businesses can chart a new course for themselves as well as use their influence on supply chains to enable and incentivize suppliers to reduce air pollution emissions. Businesses can also raise awareness with their employees, customers and other stakeholders on the benefits of clean air. Research by The Economist Intelligence Unit found a staggering 71% rise in online searches for sustainable goods globally over the past five years. Consumers worldwide expect businesses to play a positive role in society and feel they bear as much responsibility as governments in driving positive change.

Momentum is building on tackling air pollution. As the main source of air pollutant emissions – fossil fuel combustion – is also the main source of greenhouse gases, tackling air pollution will deliver both health and climate gains. The private sector has an instrumental role. The Alliance for Clean Air, launching at COP26, is bringing together leading businesses who will take action to reduce their air pollution and champion the importance of clean air with their employees, customers and communities.

“We proved up to the tasks of figuring out the drivers of climate change and devising a comprehensive global strategy for addressing it,” wrote Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC. “Now, it is up to governments to lead, businesses to innovate, and societies to come together, in service of a common cause: building a sustainable future.”


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Related topics:
Nature and BiodiversityClimate ActionSupply Chains and Transportation
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