Clean Air Makes Economic Sense, Says Influential Group Ahead of World Bank Spring Meetings
Tackling air pollution makes economic sense, says Jane Burston, CEO of Clean Air Fund.

What is the impact of air pollution on exam results or future earnings? Can governments agree to a 2050 net-zero-like goal for a key pollutant, PM 2.5? 

Such questions are part of an appeal by a new group of political, health, policy, and finance leaders for a policy approach to air pollution that is like that against greenhouse gas (GHG) – including an “intergovernmental” plan and nationally determined targets. 

Our Common Air (OCA) has put out a call to action that seeks to present a new and hopefully, more compelling way for global leaders and financiers to address air pollution, one of the world’s single biggest health crises.   

Frustrated by the lack of progress in addressing air pollution, the call presents new targets and suggests a new framework to improve air quality. 

The group’s co-chairs, former prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, and former WHO chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, say pollution has not received the attention or funding it deserves even though the devastating health costs have been documented.

These include over seven million deaths estimated by WHO, links to heart attacks, strokes, dementia, high blood pressure, low birth weight, lung cancer, and chronic lung disease among many other ailments. About 99% of the world’s population suffers air pollution above the WHO’s guidelines. 

Commissioners and secretariat members at the Our Common Air convening in February at the Bellagio Center, Italy. Our Common Air is a new global commission of high-level government figures, renowned health experts, academics, and leading climate change specialists.

Air pollution is a health and economic crisis

OCA  was set up last year as an independent commission. Apart from Clark and Swaminathan, its 16 commissioners include current WHO and World Bank officials participating in their personal capacities, as well as climate, pollution, finance, and policy experts.

 The group is backed by the UK-based Clean Air Fund and the report – Clean Air: A Call to Action – has been prepared by the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). 

But OCA is re-phrasing the argument for clean air based on sound economics as well as a change in attitude. It is proposing four planks: value clean air as an asset, finance the transition, set clean air targets for all and collaboratively track progress, and work together to achieve solutions that benefit all. 

The report has been released ahead of the World Bank’s Spring Meetings, which take place next week, and serve as an important annual moment for reflectin and dialogue on global priorities by international finance and development actors.

In a statement to Health Policy Watch, the commission says its focus on these meetings reflects the conviction that development finance institutions have a big role to play in transforming the landscape of clean air funding and action. 

Said Clark, “With every breath of toxic air endangering lives and having a knock-on effect on economies, we urgently need to take greater action on air pollution now. The upcoming World Bank and IMF Spring Meetings present a crucial opportunity for global leaders to come together and make clean air a priority.”

There are numerous problems associated with air pollution, which often affect children and old people the most.

From mitigation to protection 

The group is calling for a change in focus from mitigating air pollution as a harm to recognising and valuing clean air as an asset. It points out, for instance, that the United States found that every $1 spent on air pollution control yielded an estimated $30 in economic benefits. 

The World Bank estimates that the global cost of health damage due to air pollution amounts to $8.1 trillion a year, equivalent to 6.1% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Contrast this with the $4.5 trillion needed a year by 2030 as investment in clean energy to limit global warming to 1.5°C, as estimated by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The report urges multilateral and regional development banks to incorporate economic impact analysis into their regular processes and demonstrate the economic benefits of reducing pollution. 

It calls on insurance firms to start incorporating air pollution-related health costs in risk assessments; many are already doing so for climate change in sectors like coal mining or housing in areas battered by rising cases of unpredictable, extreme weather. 

More funding needed

The report calls for greater funding to combat air pollution. A study by Clean Air Fund, which supports OCA, showed that only 1% of international development funding ($2.5 billion per year) and 2% of international public climate finance ($1.66 billion per year) was committed to targeting air pollution over the last six years for which full data is available. 

The new report calls on all public development banks to develop metrics that ensure air quality impacts are publicised across investment portfolios. 

“Clean air does not have to be an ‘additional’ area to invest in,” says Clark. “Many of our existing public finance flows are already delivering clean air as a by-product. For example, action to reduce emissions to slow climate change also helps to cut air pollution. Our global public finance institutions should recognise and reinforce these ‘two birds, one stone’ solutions, by making clean air an explicit goal of existing programmes.”

Image Credits: Our Common Air.

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