Air Pollution

Business leaders are tackling air pollution — for our health and the planet. Here's how

Air pollution causes seven million premature deaths every year — tackling it requires leadership.

Air pollution causes seven million premature deaths every year — tackling it requires leadership. Image: Unsplash/Mika Buameister

Shannon Engstrom
Specialist, Centre for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Air Pollution

  • 99% of people worldwide breathe air above the safe limits suggested by the World Health Organization.
  • Air pollution emissions are a contributor to climate change. Taking action is a win-win for human and planetary health.
  • Launched at COP26, Eva Scherer and Andreas Ahrens are co-chairing the Alliance for Clean Air, the first global corporate initiative to tackle air pollution.

Air pollution harms our health, economies and the planet. As co-chairs of the Alliance for Clean Air, the first global corporate initiative to bring together leading businesses to tackle air pollution, Andreas Ahrens, Head of Climate, Inter-IKEA Group and Eva Scherer, CFO, Rail Infrastructure and Mobility Software, Siemens, argue that companies have a responsibility to ensure clean air is a human right for all.

Air pollution is a global-scale problem

“When I learned that 99% of the world's population breathes air that is harmful to their health, I knew I had to do something about it," said Scherer.

"For us at Siemens, we see air pollution as a global health crisis and therefore it was a simple choice to join the Alliance for Clean Air, because we firmly believe that we have a responsibility to lead the transition to a climate-neutral and sustainable economy. Siemens agrees with the UNEP and the United Nation’s positions that access to a healthy environment is a human right.”

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Ahrens said: “We know today that 2.4 billion are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, leading to seven million premature deaths every year. Recent studies also show that even small levels of air pollution harm our health. We cannot look away from this fact, we must take action.”

Despite the tragic rate of premature deaths caused by air pollution, Eva said she has noticed it is rarely mentioned in mainstream conversation and is underrepresented in public dialogue.

But Scherer and her team have a plan to address this lack of attention.

“Do you see ads, billboards, hear radio commercials about how air pollution kills people? Probably not. That’s why we are increasingly using the word 'pollution' in our messaging and why we joined the Alliance for Clean Air.”

Air pollution and climate change

Air pollution and climate change are closely related. Extracting and burning fossil fuels drives both climate change and air pollution.

Inter-Ikea Group's Ahrens said his company is taking responsibility for its contribution to air pollution.

He said: As a global retailer with a large value chain, we have a large responsibility of contributing to air pollution by the fuels we use, the sourcing practices we require and the materials we choose for our products, and if they are possible to recycle or not. This also means that we are part of the solution and can take action to address it.”

And for Scherer and her company, a significant part of this move to cut air pollution will inevitably involve technology.

“Renewable power, smarter energy use and electrifying transport are key technology pillars that have the potential to deliver the greatest impact on global emissions — and, in turn, improved air quality — by the end of this decade. And they are the key sectors our company delivers on for our customers, suppliers and for our own operations.”

Tackling action on air pollution to accelerate climate action means prioritizing solutions that tackle both to maximize impact.

For example, IKEA is finding they can remove air pollution from high-density population areas by switching to electric and other zero-emission vehicles for home deliveries. With so many ways to reduce emissions, they find it helpful to use air pollution reduction as another driver so they can deliver on human and planetary health co-benefits.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing to tackle air pollution?

Tackling air pollution means taking leadership seriously

Both Scherer and Ahrens know that when it comes to tackling air pollution, leadership and international cooperation are key.

“If we cannot lead the way on how to measure air pollution, set ambitious goals to actively reduce it and support innovation in new technology, who will? This also means that we have a large responsibility to act as champions to raise the awareness of air pollution, and how to tackle it,” said Scherer, adding: “With all we know, we must act urgently and at scale by encouraging others to join forces to accelerate progress on air quality, climate and health.”

For the first time ever, through the Alliance for Clean Air, corporations like Siemens and IKEA are working together to create air pollution baselines to determine impacts and set targets.

Alliance for Clean Air members are using the guide, developed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and Stockholm Environment Institute, in co-operation with IKEA, to calculate air pollution emissions across their value chains.

The guide integrates with how companies are already calculating greenhouse gas emissions, making the reporting work as seamless as possible — and in this way, playing a pivotal role in bringing down emissions and cleaning up the air for everyone.

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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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Air PollutionDavos Agenda
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