April 22, 2024

Making Clean Air an Earth Day Priority

While global environmental activism has been successful in making plastics a part of the global agenda, air pollution—the world’s greatest external risk to human health—continues to remain on the margins of the conversation.

by Tanushree Ganguly and Hrishikesh Chandra Gautam

The first Earth Day brought together 20 million Americans who demanded greater protection for our planet, and it led to significant policy progress in the United States. Today, it is commemorated across the world as a reminder that citizens need to stand up for their right to clean air, water and land. This Earth Day is a special one for the global environmental movement, as it coincides with ongoing negotiations to eliminate plastic pollution from the planet.

While global environmental activism has been successful in making plastics a part of  the global agenda, air pollution—the world’s greatest external risk to human health—continues to remain on the margins of the conversation. This is evident in that between 2015-2021 less than 2 percent of international public funding went to clean air projects. Yet, more than 99 percent of the world’s population breathes what the World Health Organization deems as unsafe air.

Setting aside the priorities of international public finance, if one were to explore the interests of regular people, the results would be broadly similar. A simple comparison using Google trends suggests that over the past year for every single person who searched for air pollution, 8 people searched for smoking. 

Air pollution is not a big concern for most people for two reasons. First, there is a lack of access to local data. Just 3.7, 6.8 and 19 percent of governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America, respectively, provide residents with open air quality data. In fact, in countries like Burundi, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, there is not even a single government-run air quality monitor to measure air pollution. While plastic pollution is something that can be seen and touched, air pollution—except in its most extreme form—cannot. Without data about pollution in the air, there is no way for people to understand its existence. 

The second reason why air pollution is not a major concern is because the problem has not been well communicated. People need to understand how air pollution directly impacts their life. That’s why my colleagues at the University of Chicago created the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI). The AQLI brings hyper-local and relevant information to people throughout the world in the metric that matters the most: life expectancy. The AQLI finds that globally, people are likely to lose more than 2 years off their lives as a result of breathing polluted air—a comparable impact to smoking.  

This information is important because if you don’t know the severity of a problem and to what extent the problem affects you, you will not care about it. And, if people do not care about air pollution, they will not stand up and demand policy changes. 

This year, 64 countries will go to the polls to elect new leaders. There cannot be a better time for voters to tell their leaders what they care about. For air pollution to become a public demand and political priority, here’s what needs to happen.

First, every person, regardless of which country they reside in, should have access to air quality information. While local information on air pollution may not be available for many parts of the world, there are global air pollution databases like the WHO air quality database, among others, that provide residents with local information about their air. Still, the global community and countries around the world could do more to install monitors and make data more open in the data deserts of the world. 

Second, air pollution needs to be communicated in terms that people can relate to. While there is no dearth of evidence around the long-term health impacts of air pollution, it is the impacts that people can see and feel every day that spur action. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the direct link between death and the coronavirus was ever-present. So, people began wearing masks to protect themselves. The link between death and air pollution isn’t so clearly felt.  The AQLI can help bridge this gap, but it cannot do so alone. 

Third, air pollution campaigns should focus on not just the problem of air pollution but also its solvable nature. For instance, China has managed to reduce its pollution by more than 40 percent in less than ten years. This is a remarkable example of how alignment of public demand and political will can dent something as wicked as air pollution.

Finally, while concerted policy action at the local, national and global level is key to reducing air pollution, individual action is powerful and must be celebrated.  In recent years, we have seen an emergence of concerned citizens, including in data poor parts of the world, who are using data to bring people and communities together around the issue of air pollution. People coming together is all it took to bring action on that first Earth Day. It can happen again. 

Air pollution is a deadly problem. But, there is much reason for hope.  With credible data, informed and driven communities, adequate funding and accountable governments, we can clear the air we breathe.

Tanushree Ganguly is the director of the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) and Hrishikesh Chandra Gautam is a data specialist for the Index.