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From Lagos to D.C., these young activists are fighting air pollution — this is their journey

Air pollution is a problem globally, with 99% of people breathing air that exceed World Health Organization guidelines. Pictured here is a woman walking across a field with heavy smog hanging in the air in the Indian city of New Delhi.

Air pollution is a problem globally, with 99% of people breathing air that exceed WHO guidelines. Image: Reuters

Roddy Weller
Project Lead, Clean Air, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • 99% of people worldwide breathe air above the safe limits suggested by the World Health Organization.
  • And 1.8 billion people under the age of 15 breathe air that is so polluted it risks their health and development.
  • These three young activists, from Nigeria, Colombia and the U.S., are working in their communities and countries to help mitigate that harm.

Climate change affects human health in a myriad of ways, but perhaps one of the most immediately harmful is by degrading the air we breathe.

World Health Organization (WHO) data shows that 99% of the global population breathes air that exceeds guideline limits and contains high levels of pollutants.

A 2020 survey found at least two-thirds of citizens in Bulgaria, India, Nigeria, Poland and the United Kingdom support stricter regulations to tackle air pollution. In India and Nigeria, more than 90% of those surveyed wanted to see air quality improved in their area.

The Forum asked three young activists to share why they began campaigning on air pollution, and what is next for them.

Air pollution reminds me of how things out of your control can still dramatically shape your future

Alejandro Daly

Air pollution activists share their stories

Alejandro Daly

National Director, El Derecho a No Obedecer, Colombia

“I was born with asthma,” said Daly. “After I arrived in Bogotá it got worse due to air pollution.”

According to the WHO, 1.8 billion people under the age of 15 breathe air that is so polluted it risks their health and development. In Colombia, according to the National Planning Department, a person dies of diseases related to air pollution every 50 minutes.

“Air pollution reminds me of how things out of your control can still dramatically shape your future, drastically diminishing agency and well-being. That is why, as Director of El Derecho a No Obedecer, I have led my organization's efforts to fight air pollution.”

Since 2018, his organization has carried out three national campaigns to advocate for clean air in Colombia, mobilizing more than 5,000 climate activists, academics, and government officials.

“In 2019 we created the first School of Advocacy for Air Quality — ‘New Airs’. In two years, we have trained 130 people representing 25 different municipalities in the country, delivered around 50 low-cost sensors to measure air pollution, and developed methodologies to mobilize young people for air quality,” said Daly.

His goal, he explained, is to take what he and his organization have learned in Colombia and create a Latin American Network for Clean Air. Daly and his team want to promote awareness across the continent of the scourge of air pollution and encourage the empowerment and collaboration required for the construction of effective public policies to tackle it.

“I strongly believe in the need to change the global narrative around the climate crisis,” he said.

“To fight air pollution, we need to first strengthen civil society organizations' capacities, and then promote the creation of strong national and international coalitions. By doing this, we will create an inclusive global climate agenda that includes actions for the right to health and a healthy environment.”

Have you read?

Sophia Kianni

Founder and Executive Director, Climate Cardinals, US

“Growing up, I witnessed the impacts of oil and gas pollution firsthand in my parents’ home country of Iran, where thousands of people are being hospitalized a day because of worsening air quality,” said Kianni.

“In Washington, D.C., where I’m from, new studies have found that air pollution poses inequitable health risks. There, neighborhoods with higher proportions of people of color and lower income and education levels are more susceptible to the worst impacts of climate change.”

Kianni recently moved to California, where air pollution is a major problem, to attend Stanford University.

“As someone with a family history of asthma, I’m very concerned about ensuring that my generation and future generations will have access to clean, livable air,” she said.

To further her air pollution advocacy, Kianni joined the American Lung Association as their first climate activist advisor. There she lobbied the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Biden Administration to strengthen their methane emission rules and to educate the American public about the dangers of air pollution to public health.

“Through the Stand Up For Clean Air initiative, we have launched a public information campaign to talk about the fact that more than 40% of Americans are living with unhealthy air, unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate pollution,” said Kianni, adding: “People of color are over three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air than white people.”

Kianni said: “In the future, I hope to receive funding to distribute grants to youth-led grassroots organizations and non-profits working on climate education and air pollution campaigning.”

Olumide Idowu

Co-Founder, International Climate Change Development Initiative, Nigeria

“The major reason for being an activist is I find myself in a situation where I see families and children suffering from a polluted environment, and new research being published about the link between air pollution and respiratory health,” said Idowu, who started campaigning against air pollution in 2013.

“The world is getting hotter and more crowded in my country, Nigeria, where our population is growing every day, and will soon exceed 250 million,” he said. “Such an environment needs a lot of support and precautions against air pollution. Air pollution is closely linked to climate change, and the health effects of air pollution are serious in Lagos State, where I live.”

Idowu is currently working on a youth campaign called #WhatHasChanged, which aims to influence the digital conversation by asking governments what they have done to build a healthier, more sustainable future.

He is also working with government agencies to monitor air quality treatments, an initiative sponsored by the World Bank that aims to build a bank of data on pollution in Nigeria, as well as fund a series of workshops that will raise awareness about air pollution.

“Our next ambition is to secure funding to drive community stakeholder programmes and additional technical support to build content that will help communities understand the impact of air pollution, and its impact on their health.”

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