Nature and Biodiversity

Why we need to invest in air quality

Image shows polluting factory chimneys illustrating why it is important to invest in air quality.

Now is the time to invest in air quality and industry must play its part. Image: Photo by JuniperPhoton on Unsplash

Christa Hasenkopf
Director, Air Quality Programs and Air Quality Life Index, University of Chicago
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  • We are losing more than two years off of the average human life expectancy across the world due to particulate pollution.
  • Yet, our investment in tackling air pollution lags far behind the scale of the problem.
  • Worldwide investment in air quality management infrastructure is greatly lacking and now is the time to invest in air quality.

Earlier this summer, the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago released its latest report. This detailed the state of air pollution and its impacts on life expectancy across the world in 2020. The results were sobering.

Despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic slowdowns, in which many places recorded brief periods of cleaner air, global levels of particulate pollution (PM2.5) – the most harmful type of pollution for human health – in 2020 remained largely the same as the previous year. According to this latest AQLI data, we are losing more than two years off of the average human life expectancy across the world due to particulate pollution. This loss to the length of human life is more than the loss due to road injuries, HIV/AIDS, malaria and war combined.

Life expectancy impact of PM2.5 and unassociated causes/risks of death global, as per Air Quality Life Index.
Life expectancy impact from unhealthy ambient PM2.5 levels compared to other causes and risks of death, as per the Air Quality Life Index data. Image: Air Quality Life Index Annual Update 2022 and the 2021 Clean Air Fund State of Global Air Quality Funding Report

Meanwhile, our investment in tackling air pollution lags far behind the scale of the problem. According to a report by the Clean Air Fund, for example, globally philanthropies invest just $40 million annually. This is in sharp contrast to HIV/AIDS which, after successful efforts instituted over decades, now has a smaller impact on global life expectancy, but still 16 times greater financial support than air pollution. In terms of official international development assistance from governments and international organizations, the chasm is even greater; issues such as HIV/AIDs receive 225 times more funding support than outdoor air pollution ($6.5 billion versus $28.9 million).

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Countries that are cleaning up their air

While the current levels of global pollution and funding to combat it paint a bleak picture, there is much to be hopeful for. Examples abound of countries and cities successfully cleaning their air.

From 2013 to 2020, for instance, China has experienced an astounding 40% reduction in particulate pollution and added on average more than two years onto the life expectancy of its citizens, if these cleaner levels are sustained. These improvements were the result of coordinated, ambitious policy actions by the Chinese government, including creating overarching and measurable targets to increase air quality rapidly, as well as specific solutions, such as restricting the number of vehicles in major cities, reducing steel-making capacity, reducing emissions from or even moving or banning coal-fired plants.

Chinese government created overarching and measurable targets to increase air quality rapidly.
Chinese government created overarching and measurable targets to increase air quality rapidly. Image: Air Quality Life Index Annual Update 2022

Meanwhile, during a different era and operating under an entirely different political construct, the United States is another successful example of a country achieving – and benefiting – from much cleaner air. In 1970, when the Clean Air Act and a suite of other regulatory actions began taking effect, roughly 50% of Americans were losing more than 1.5 years off their life expectancy to air pollution. In 2020, the average American lost two months from their lifespan due to PM2.5 pollution.

The policy efforts in these countries were successful because both countries invested in the technology, infrastructure and human power they needed to manage the problem. This included being able to measure and monitor air quality over the long-term.

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Reliable monitoring is key to improving air quality

Reliable monitoring data is essential to being able to enforce policies, assess progress and communicate air quality to the public to build trust and momentum for sustaining policy goals. But governments often don’t have the capacity or expertise to install monitors, collect data and track and interpret the results.

Air quality infrastructure – or lack thereof – is often the crucial difference between effective and ineffective air quality policies. In many countries, the issue is not about getting great air quality policies on the books – they’re already there, it’s about having the expertise, human power and technology to enforce them.

Yet, when we look at the global stage of where official development funding is spent, we find the basics of air quality management infrastructure – robust data monitoring and public communication tools – are lacking. According to the Clean Air Fund’s 2021 report on the State of Global Air Quality Funding, data and communications projects each represent 1% or less in official development funding for air quality. But therein lies the opportunity. Given the current state of low investment in air pollution and the even weaker state for air quality management infrastructure, a small absolute increase in funding for such projects could result in a large relative increase in improving global capacity to address air pollution.

The size of the public health burden caused by poor air quality is gigantic, but the gaps in basic air quality management infrastructure are not. The gaps are tractable; they’ve just been neglected. Targeting these neglected gaps is a golden opportunity for philanthropists and international development assistance organizations seeking to make progress on one of the largest public health threats of our time.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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