Feature: Bringing together action on air pollution and climate change  

The Clean Air Fund explains why we must bring together action on air pollution and climate change.

The ‘cobra effect’, is a concept dating to when British colonial rulers in India attempted a solution but instead made an existing problem worse. This is the trap governments face today by not addressing the interconnected problems of climate change and air pollution together.  

Concerns about the growing number of cobras in Delhi led the government to offer a reward for every dead snake. This was successful to start with but backfired when entrepreneurial citizens started to breed cobras for the financial incentives they offered. When the government ended the bounty, breeders set these now worthless snakes free. The upshot: the cobra population increased rather than decreased. 

The ‘cobra effect’ is reminiscent of the switch from petrol to diesel vehicles, incentivised by governments in pursuit of targets agreed at Kyoto in 1997. The move was aimed at reducing CO2 emissions. 

Regardless of if this was achieved, it is indisputable that the measures resulted in increased nitrogen oxides (NOx), air pollutants that are toxic for humans. A more recent example of problem-solving which sets climate-harming emissions against health-harming emissions is the shift from fossil fuels to higher blends of biofuels (>15%) which can, in the end, increase emissions of NOand volatile organic compounds (VOC).

The resulting higher uptake of biomass to replace natural gas and promote renewable energy has led to an increase in VOC, solid PM, and carbon monoxide (CO) decreasing urban air quality.  

A new briefing paper, ‘Joined-up action on air pollution and climate change’, argues that governments need to pursue a much more integrated approach. Instead of tackling the complex issues of air pollution and climate change in parallel or at cross purposes, the Clean Air Fund argues that by adopting a more coordinated approach at every level, governments can save money, save lives, and cut carbon use. 

Multiplier effect

As well as avoiding the ‘cobra effect’, the Clean Air Fund outlines how a joined-up approach can produce a kind of multiplier effect. Climate solutions that also deliver cleaner air offer a cheaper, faster and fairer way to achieve climate goals. Air pollution’s silent pandemic is causing 7 million premature deaths each year—action now can save many lives while accelerating climate change mitigation.1 In addition, there is significant potential for countries to deliver effective and inclusive air quality and climate solutions to create healthier, more resilient, and sustainable recovery pathways after Covid-19.  

Harnessing the synergies between clean air and climate action could achieve:  

  • Cheaper, higher-return climate actions thanks to air quality benefits. Currently, many climate policy-making processes do not account for the savings on health and other co-benefits of cleaner air. By including the co-benefits of air quality in cost-benefit analyses, measures that have a negative cost deliver 50% greater CO2e emissions reductions (24 gigatonnes as opposed to 16 gigatonnes a year). Capturing these benefits could accelerate progress in improving air quality and help catalyse the action needed to limit warming to 1.5°C 
  • Faster results on reducing both global warming and air pollution. The benefits from cleaner air appear much sooner than from reduced greenhouse gases, providing tangible results that build popular support. Actions such as shifting to electric vehicles or shutting down coal plants have important long-term climate mitigation benefits while delivering immediate and more visible clean air benefits. By reducing black carbon, a component of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) and a short-lived climate pollutant (SLCP) that warms the planet, these actions benefit both global temperatures and human health.  
  • Fairer and more equitable outcomes. The quality of the air we breathe echoes the deep inequities in the world, and the poor in all countries are hardest hit. Death rates from air pollution are four times higher in low and lower-middle-income countries than in high-income countries. And within these, the poor and vulnerable suffer the most. Low and lower-middle-income countries have a PM2.5 concentration that is 2.5 times higher on average than in high-income countries. Equity can be promoted by prioritising climate action that targets air quality improvements for disadvantaged groups, especially in the world’s cities. The improved health and economic outcomes can in turn enhance the resilience of populations and social infrastructure, for example, health systems, to climate change.  

Early adopters  

There are already bright spots of good, joined-up practice with cities, countries and international organisations pursuing more coherent strategies in recent years. 

The Clean Air Cities Declaration launched by C40 in 2019 with 35 city signatories, highlights the interconnectedness of air pollution with the climate challenge and the need for cities to integrate pollution-reducing actions into climate action plans. 

Chile, Ghana, Mexico and Mongolia have explicitly adapted their climate change strategies to incorporate air quality goals—with programming that tackled both agendas together, and extensive coordination between relevant stakeholders.  

In 2020, Mexico stepped up its commitment to tackling both climate change and air pollution with its new National Strategy to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, which would reduce black carbon emissions by 53% in 2030, exceeding the target identified in their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in the Paris Agreement. It would also reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 9% by 2030 primarily through methane emission reductions. 

Ghana has also recognised the strategic importance of acting on air pollution and climate together. In 2020, it became the first country to include air pollution, in the form of black carbon, in its National Greenhouse Gas Inventory submitted to the UNFCCC. And in 2018, Ghana published a National Action Plan to Mitigate SLCPs which identifies measures to both improve air quality mitigate against climate change.  

The European Union’s EC4MACS collaboration provides a useful model of joined-up analysis to support effective policy making. The EC4MACS toolkit helps to quantify the co-benefits of tackling air pollutants and greenhouse gases so member countries can prioritize their emission control strategy 

The model compares the level of emissions and other outcomes with that from existing regulations to inform the gap with the policy target set out by the EU. It is estimated that by adopting all feasible technologies to control both greenhouse gases and air pollution, the health benefits generated could range from €25–157 billion per year compared to maintenance costs of €28-40 billion per year. The EC4MACS has contributed to the policy proposal for the EU Energy and Climate Package, Roadmap for moving to a low-carbon economy in 2050. 

Cost-benefit analysis of the EU incorporating air quality as a climate priority, estimation for 20302 

As the EC4MACS example shows, capturing the co-benefits of air quality in cost-benefit analyses can support better decision making and higher returns. 

Proposals for policymakers 

The Clean Air Fund has added its voice to the growing call for a halt to new public investment in high carbon emitting and air polluting fossil fuels. Governments should fund a just transition to clean air solutions. That includes increasing support to low- and middle-income countries and focusing funding on the communities that need it most.  

Other recommendations from the briefing paper include: 

  • creating a new Global Air Quality Convention, where global targets informed by WHO ambient air pollution guidelines can be agreed and reported against, shared regional approaches that cross geographical boundaries can be established, and global institutional mechanisms can be strengthened.  
  • developing national mechanisms to support cross-sectoral coordination to embed health considerations and co-benefits across adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development policy and programmes. For example, at a national government level, new cross-departmental Air Quality Units could be created with responsibilities and powers across health, climate, energy, waste, agriculture and transport policy.  
  • improving policy coherence and indicator alignment across international climate, and sustainable development frameworks to better understand the linked challenges in an integrated manner and capture multiple benefits that may arise. Improvements in tracking and reporting on spending and results provide data and evidence for costs and benefits of an integrated approach to emission control actions. 

By building collaborative approaches that span siloes, borders and boundaries, governments may find they do not need to choose between harming health or harming the planet but can make progress on both.  

This article first appeared in the November Air Quality News magazine, click here to view. 


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