A coal-fired power plant in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Air pollution is the fourth-biggest global risk factor to our health, yet current funding to clean the air is a mere rounding error on major donors’ budgets. This is despite compelling evidence on the scale of the problem and, crucially, the existence of known solutions. Better communication and collaboration can ensure that this year marks a change in approach to one of the great development challenges of our time.

The air we breathe is killing us. The seminal “State of Global Air” report shows that dirty air is undermining our health from cradle to grave. In many parts of the world, this is getting worse, not better.

It is a truly global problem — 98% of the world’s children don’t breathe air the World Health Organization defines as clean. Yet as with most development challenges, people living in low- and middle-income countries are affected first and most.

You would assume such a cross-cutting issue would feature high on the agenda of major development agencies, but a recent analysis by the Clean Air Fund and Development Initiatives suggests otherwise.

Despite outdoor air pollution being responsible for 118 million “lost years of healthy life” each year, in 2019 it attracted just over $50 million of grants from major donors and philanthropic organizations combined. That’s tiny — equivalent to a mere 5% of the aid spent on malnutrition or 0.7% of the aid allocated for HIV/AIDS. This is definitely not an argument to spend less on these two major health/development issues, but it does raise the question if enough attention, and money, are going to cleaning our air.

With the right mix of targeted investment, communication, and collaboration, 2021 can be the tipping point for increasing aid to tackle air pollution.

The Clean Air Fund and Health Effects Institute recently convened a group of funders to discuss the mismatch between the scale of the problem and the money allocated to it. Five key ideas emerged:

1. Showcase the win-wins

Donor agencies and governments need convincing of the depth of the problem and its connections to other development challenges.

We must make the case for policies that address several development goals together: health, climate, economic development, and social justice. Powerful stats like those showing how air pollution is attributable to 1 in 5 newborn deaths must be combined with more localized stories of how air pollution impacts people’s health in different contexts, from London to Lagos.

We must connect air pollution to current issues like COVID-19, showing how air pollution increases susceptibility to such diseases, and how addressing it can be part of the need for “Green New Deal” economic recovery packages. This will mean we are speaking to policymakers on their terms and pushing at an open door.

2. Identify and share solutions

As well as describing the problem, we need to confidently communicate that solutions exist. The solution is not always the same in Bengaluru as in London, but we can learn from what is working in one place and adapt it to another.

For example, Breathe London’s groundbreaking work to monitor and communicate hyper-local air quality data to policymakers using low-cost sensors can be useful in many settings around the globe. We need more opportunities for learning from each other.

3. Avoid future pollution before it starts

It’s important to tackle the problem where it is largest. But in many parts of the world, prevention is better than cure; by tackling the problem before it emerges and grows, we can have as big — or bigger — impact than we would otherwise. For example, rapidly urbanizing countries offer an opportunity to shape infrastructure and urban planning investments, which will impact on air pollution for decades. The limited grants funds are currently spent in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, with almost no funding to Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Changing this won’t be easy — these contexts require different approaches — but early intervention could pay huge dividends, compared to retrofitting.

4. Start small and scale fast when it works

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There is growing recognition that it is impossible to safeguard human health without protecting natural systems. Many are calling for greater adoption of a collaborative approach called planetary health.

In many settings, especially low- and middle-income countries, there are few local groups working on clean air. Meanwhile, growing interest from academics is largely focused on characterizing, rather than solving, the problem. In high-income countries, there is more capacity, but this knowledge is not adequately shared and applied internationally.

So, donors should, initially, at least, invest modest amounts in smaller organizations, and also work to bridge partnerships in order to build local capacity and replicate approaches that are working elsewhere.

5. Put effort and resources into donor coordination and collaboration

Clean air funders should coordinate and collaborate more, learning from other cross-cutting issues that have emerged from being neglected to attracting serious resources, including the movement to Scale Up Nutrition. Advocacy, communications, and resource allocation all benefit from systematic tracking and coordination that will ultimately enable strategic and effective action.

At the moment, there are few platforms for funders to share their experiences and plans on air pollution. The run-up to the vital COP26 meeting in 2021 could provide focus here, with governments looking for win-win policies and solutions.

With the right mix of targeted investment, communication, and collaboration, 2021 can be the tipping point for increasing aid to tackle air pollution.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Robert O'Keefe

    Robert O’Keefe is vice president of the Health Effects Institute, president of HEI-Energy, and chair emeritus of Clean Air Asia. He has lead major HEI programs that independently assess the health impact of air pollution from domestic and global sources, including those driven by climate concerns for over two decades.
  • Jane Burston

    Jane Burston is the executive director of the Clean Air Fund.
  • Rob Hughes

    Rob Hughes is a research fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and consultant for the Clean Air Fund.