Our shared air: Addressing air pollution and climate change together
Jane Burston , Martina Otto
A firefighting helicopter flies over a wildfire in rural Walker County, Texas, the U.S., September 2, 2023. /CFP
A firefighting helicopter flies over a wildfire in rural Walker County, Texas, the U.S., September 2, 2023. /CFP

A firefighting helicopter flies over a wildfire in rural Walker County, Texas, the U.S., September 2, 2023. /CFP

Editor's note: Jane Burston is the CEO and founder of the Clean Air Fund, a philanthropic foundation tackling global air pollution. Martina Otto is the head of the Secretariat of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition convened by the United Nations Environment Programme. The article reflects the authors' opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Today is the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. This year's commemoration is overshadowed by wildfires in Europe, North America, and Russia which have made the link between climate change and air pollution unmistakably visible. Still, the role and extent of air pollution in global warming is underestimated, both in policy making and related public funding but also in climate mitigation targeted financing.

Over 90 percent of the global population breathes air polluted above the UN World Health Organization's recommended safe guidelines, not just during crisis events, but all year round. This comes at an immense cost: For human health, as air pollution causes asthma, heart and lung diseases; for our ecosystems, as air pollution impedes plant growth; and for our economies, through lost productivity and higher healthcare costs. 

Climate justice has made it into public consciousness. We need to do the same now for air pollution, because even though air is shared, we do not always breathe the same air. Even within the same city, poorer communities suffer from exposure to more air pollution, as do women in developing countries, who spend significant amounts of time cooking over open fires. The mental and physical development of children and unborn babies is altered by exposure to air pollution.

Air pollution's significant and consistent contribution to climate change also needs more recognition. Wildfires are just one example of how the two crises exacerbate one another. But the most significant air pollution sources are not accidents, but cyclical and planned practices such as agricultural burning, waste management, transport systems, and industrial production.

Methane, black carbon, ground-level ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons – known as short-lived climate pollutants – are some of the most pervasive and potent contributors to both climate change and air pollution. Action to cut these pollutants helps reduce both near-term warming and our exposure to air pollution. The IPCC has stated that reducing short-lived climate pollutants significantly by 2030, as well as carbon dioxide, is now a non-negotiable if we are to reach the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A firefighter working on a fire in the Amazon rainforest in Iranduba, Amazonas, Brazil, September 5, 2023. /CFP
A firefighter working on a fire in the Amazon rainforest in Iranduba, Amazonas, Brazil, September 5, 2023. /CFP

A firefighter working on a fire in the Amazon rainforest in Iranduba, Amazonas, Brazil, September 5, 2023. /CFP

Despite the potential for air pollution mitigation to contribute to reaching climate change goals – and to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals on food security and public health – financing and governance mechanisms do not sufficiently recognize this connection. Too often we address these issues in silos, when solutions should be optimized for multiple benefits using integrated criteria to decide on funding policies.

Two of the three pillars of the United Nations Environment Programme's "triple planetary crises" – climate and nature – are now covered by binding international frameworks for mitigation in the Paris and Kunming agreements respectively. Air pollution, however, is still only being addressed via a fragmented field of frameworks across polluting subsectors, substances, and regions.

Under the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, state and non-state partners have joined forces to remedy that. Our partner state ministers and heads of agencies have agreed it is "breathing time," and we are developing a Clean Air Flagship effort to unblock key obstacles to action.

The next step is to seek an ambitious and achievable international goal that can connect and strengthen regional plans, programmes, and agreements. The precedent set by the Global Methane Pledge shows that creating a voluntary global rallying point and process, based on shared responsibility and incentivized by the multi-faceted benefits of climate and clean air action, may be a feasible way forward.

There are three important pillars upon which progress towards climate and clean air goals could be measured, while avoiding political barriers over responsibility for air pollution. The first is the updated WHO Air Quality Guidelines, which provide graduated targets towards safer levels of air pollution contextualized to regional characteristics.

The second is the science on the mechanisms of "airsheds" – regions that share a common flow of air – which identifies regional air flow patterns and their impacts. This applies between cities and regions in the same country and beyond and reduces finger-pointing over the sources of air pollution. We cannot influence how the wind blows, but we can cooperate in identifying solutions that work in both directions.

The third is funding. We currently fall short of funding for both climate and clean air. Even for climate, finance flows are nowhere near estimated needs, conservatively estimated at $4.5 trillion to $5 trillion annually. Adding assessment criteria for air quality outcomes in climate and health funding and vice versa is one avenue. But we need more, particularly of the kind of flexible funding that promotes innovation in technologies and business models and bridges levels of government. As the IMF has noted, such investments are necessary to avoid future systemic economic risks. And improving air quality is key to building stronger economies.

Synthesizing the challenges of air pollution and climate change would also optimize the direction of finance to areas which the established science shows are the highest priority. Action on air pollution is also climate action. Cleaning our air is one of the most immediate ways to protect the planet and fight climate change. There is no reason why climate and clean air benefits should just be incidental when we can intentionally seek to mitigate both.

The chronic and acute health impacts, crop losses, and more extreme weather events exacerbated by air pollution are not going away any time soon. It's about time we began planning for, and investing, to reduce the occurrence of what are now becoming cyclical reminders of deeply intertwined climate and clean air challenges.

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