The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD. This article was first published in February 2022.
Today we are confronted with two interlocking global crises: a public health crisis of air pollution and the existential crisis of climate change. We have the opportunity to address these twin crises through an integrated approach that can deliver significant near-term health benefits and set us on the energy transition pathway necessary to address climate change. Adopting an integrated approach means targeting pollutants that warm the planet and harm our health, and prioritising solutions that advance cleaner air and climate goals.
Air pollution is the fourth leading risk factor for premature death and disease globally, responsible for an estimated seven million deaths in 2019. Exposure to air pollution impacts nearly every system in the body, and today there is broad scientific consensus that it causes heart and lung diseases, including diabetes, stroke and asthma, as well as low birth weight. According to the World Heart Federation, air pollution is responsible for more than 20% of global deaths from cardiovascular disease. A new global study indicates that in 2019 air pollution was responsible for an estimated 1.85 million new childhood asthma cases.
Not surprisingly, these impacts bear a heavy toll on individuals, communities and the economy. Air pollution costs the world USD 8.1 trillion a year, equivalent to 6.1% of the global GDP. And, we know that these impacts are not equally experienced: communities that are marginalised, under-represented and historically disempowered are exposed to higher levels of pollution because of where they live, work and play.
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There are enormous health benefits to a decarbonised future, and the most tangible near-term improvements to health will come from improved air quality. As we reduce fossil fuel combustion, shift to renewable energy sources and fuels, and electrify our transportation systems, prioritising the implementation of solutions that reduce health harming and climate-warming pollutants—while taking into account the localised and distributional impacts to communities—can help to build the necessary political and public support for climate action and investments. Further, this integrated approach avoids the unintended negative consequences of a single-pollutant approach.
When climate and air quality goals are treated separately within cities, countries and international organisations, it creates an artificial division that can result in disconnected solutions and inefficient uses of scarce resources. A city might have a climate plan and a distinct air pollution plan run by different teams, which can inadvertently lead to harmful health outcomes and narrow solutions. The dramatic increase in diesel vehicles across Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s, initially heralded as having a climate benefit, resulted in a major air pollution problem across the continent. By contrast, integrating air pollution strategies into climate action plans can deliver near-term and more local health benefits and opens up opportunities to leverage investments, expand partnerships and, as a result, build support needed to achieve climate goals while advancing the new World Health Organization air quality targets.
At Environmental Defense Fund—where I work—we are making invisible air pollution visible. In collaboration with partners around the world, we aim to unlock the power of new technologies to drive data into action that delivers both clean air and climate benefits to support healthier communities. We believe that an integrated approach to climate and clean air that identifies and prioritises solutions to transforming our energy, industry, transportation and agricultural sectors can help deliver near-term health benefits, while catalysing the path to net zero.
There are a number of emerging efforts to advance integrated approaches to clean air and climate change. Medellín, Colombia recently launched an Integrated Air Quality Management Plan that addresses both climate pollutants and health-damaging air pollutants. The plan includes the implementation of a low emission zone focused on reducing fine particulate matter pollution and the incorporation of 64 zero-emission buses into the city’s Bus Rapid Transit system. To support cities in these efforts, C40 has recently launched its Clean air, healthy planet: A framework for integrating air quality management and climate action planning to support cities in setting visions and strategies to simultaneously tackle climate change, air pollution and public health issues.
Integrated climate and clean air solutions means more livable cities where people can breathe clean air, safely walk and cycle, and access affordable zero-emissions transport and clean energy.
Other innovative approaches that build capacity for locally tailored solutions to curb air pollution, address climate change and improve human health include the Clean Air Catalyst, a flagship programme from the US Agency for International Development. Co-led by the World Resources Institute and EDF, the Catalyst is working in cities to increase awareness of pollution sources and accelerate solutions that deliver health and climate benefits.
Integrated climate and clean air solutions means more livable cities where people can breathe clean air, safely walk and cycle, and access affordable zero-emissions transport and clean energy. It means optimised freight logistics to efficiently deliver goods while minimising the pollution burden and accelerating the transition to zero-emitting fleets, ports and other clean modes of transportation. For many cities around the world, integrated clean air and climate solutions can support improvements in solid waste management systems and agricultural practices, as well as the transition to cleaner fuels for cooking and heating homes.
As countries, cities and communities around the world move from climate commitments to actions, they will confront numerous different approaches and pathways. Taking an integrated approach to clean air and climate can accelerate solutions that address local air pollution problems, deliver near-term health benefits and build support for climate investments and actions.