• Opinion
  • March 21, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 2

Cleaner air sooner? How to reverse the trend on toxic air pollution

Opinion: Toxic air pollution is blighting millions of lives around the world

toxic air pollution

This piece was written by Rob Hughes from CIFF. For more like this, see our environmental policy newsfeed.


More of the same is not enough.

A ticking time bomb. The defining public health challenge of our generation. A devastating public health crisis. The new tobacco. An opportunity for a climate and health win-win. A no brainer. A compelling case for intervention.”

All of these phrases have been used to describe the challenge of toxic air pollution, which is blighting millions of lives around the world.

There are important pockets of progress. For example, cities like London, Stockholm and Tirana have ambitious plans to re-engineer their city centres towards lower-emission vehicles and public transport.

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However, the challenge is immense, and the bigger picture is not a pretty one. As the world urbanises and industrialises, more and more people are breathing toxic air.

This has dire health consequences. When pregnant women are exposed to toxic air, their babies are more likely to be born too small. Children exposed to air pollution have smaller lungs and are more likely to develop asthma. Extreme pollution levels in cities like New Delhi are transforming lung cancer from an older smokers’ disease to an urban dwellers’ one. In old age, the negative effects continue, with exposure to pollution pre-disposing people to Alzheimer’s.

Importantly, we also know what changes need to happen to clean our urban air

Importantly, we also know what changes need to happen to clean our urban air. We need to electrify transport and to shift from personal to public transport (even electric vehicles produce emissions). We need to shift away from fossil fuel heating and electricity generation.

The challenge of air pollution is therefore, largely at least, one of prioritisation and mobilisation.

Yet none of this evidence is enough to drive the radical change this problem justifies. An estimated 4.2 million people die as a result of air pollution each year. And that’s a conservative estimate.  Without rapid progress, that number is only projected to grow in the coming decades.

So, how can we accelerate positive change on air pollution?

At the Clean Air Fund and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), we are working with Apolitical to explore the question of how to drive rapid change in reversing the trend on toxic air pollution — and we welcome your ideas.

We want to hear from leaders who have helped bring about rapid transitions on other challenges — including leaders in very different sectors. Based on what you’ve learned, what would you do to achieve cleaner air sooner? What tools and approaches can deliver step change rather than incremental progress? Which groups do we need to work with and learn from?

Three ideas we’re exploring:

  • Supporting local activists to mobilise in their local communities and build diverse coalitions to push beyond “business as usual”. Parents of young children, youth and athletes who run and play outside are already pressuring political and community leaders and partnering with them to act faster. What can we do to better support their efforts and to help them take smart risks for the common good?
  • Using public interest litigation to ensure politicians meet their legal obligations to public health. ClientEarth successfully took the UK Government to court four times, all the way to the Supreme Course to highlight the illegality of UK air pollution, and the inadequate policy responses. This has undeniably led to an increase in policy ambition. Holding politicians feet to the fire on this issue seems to be working; how can we build on this success? Where else can we use these approaches?
  • Understanding why people and organisations resist change or oppose policies and programs to improve air quality — including the values and interests that underpin that opposition. How can we change mindsets and co-design programs with the right incentives to do things like shift how energy is generated and used?

But these are just a few potential approaches. Getting cleaner air sooner will require creative and innovative thinking from diverse voices, working for change across the globe.

Please share your comments, ideas and questions below, or alternatively get in touch by email. — Rob Hughes

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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