Air pollution is at crisis levels. From the smog-filled skies of Lahore to the toxic air being breathed in across New Delhi, cities are becoming unliveable across the world.
In fact, 99 per cent of the world’s population is now breathing in unhealthy air.
During the recently concluded COP28 climate summit, delegates experienced the impact of this pollution first-hand, where, on some days in Dubai, air quality readings registered up to five times above the WHO’s air quality guidelines.
What’s causing this sky-high pollution? While regionally, desert dust is often cited as a contributing factor, fossil fuels are a major cause.
And while governments have pledged to transition away from fossil fuels, a report published just before COP28 found that governments are actually planning on ramping up production.
The report from UNEP found that governments plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than is consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
Pollution, fossil fuels and 8.3 million deaths
Against a backdrop of fossil fuel expansion, millions are already dying as a result of air pollution every year.
However, research from new modelling suggests that the number of fossil fuel-related deaths is actually much higher than previously thought.
Published in the BMJ just before COP28, the research found that while the number of people being killed by pollution yearly stands at 8.3 million, the use of fossil fuels in industry, power generation, and transportation accounts for a staggering 5.1 million of those deaths.
The link is clear, yet a phase-out of fossil fuels was ultimately omitted from the final draft of the Global Stocktake.
A transboundary issue
In a project designed to safely immerse people in the air-polluted and toxic environments that big cities are becoming, UK-based visual artist Michael Pinsky created an experiential installation with geodesic domes that emulate different cities’ air conditions.
Pinsky’s Pollution Pods have been demonstrating the impacts of pollution to the public since 2017, but this year, the pods were brought to COP28 as the world’s elite negotiated the planet’s future behind closed doors.
Funded by the Clean Air Fund (CAF), the installation featured a recreation of the air in three cities: New Delhi, London and Beijing.
Each had a different level of intensity, in terms of visibility, air quality and heat.
While the London pod immersed visitors in oppressive air quality, emulating the smell of diesel, when walking through to the New Delhi and Beijing pods, this oppressive feeling only intensified, as did the heat, and visibility also worsened.
Jenaina Irani, an analyst at CAF, told ESG Mena that the installation sought to raise awareness of pollution as a global issue.
“What we wanted to do with the Clean Air Fund and bringing these pods to COP is to showcase that it’s a universal issue,” she said, adding: “We’ve got Beijing, London, and New Delhi, all of which have very unique challenges when faced with air pollution. We wanted to showcase that it’s a transboundary issue. It’s something that affects all of us.”
Speaking about some of the work CAF is doing, Irani discussed the recently launched Breathe Cities Initiative, a collaboration between Clean Air Fund, C40 Cities and Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has gone live in eleven cities.
“It’s based on a pilot that we did in London, called Breathe London,” said Irani.
The pilot gathered data using low-cost sensors that were placed across the city.
“They found some astonishing results, including on inequity,” explained Irani. “They found that NO2 emissions were 30 per cent higher in under-resourced neighbourhoods than they were in wealthier neighbourhoods.”
According to Irani, these results prompted the government to act, and helped rally support for low-emission zones, public transport and cycling lanes.
“We’ve now scaled up the Breathe London project to launch in these 11 cities across the world, including Nairobi, Accra, Rio de Janeiro, Warsaw, Sofia, London, and Paris. We’re hoping to increase data gathering and monitoring to increase community engagement and also to build awareness because it’s killing eight million people a year, it’s killing more people than all of COVID did, but no one’s really talking about it, and no one’s really doing anything about it.”
A lack of funding
Indeed, Irani shared that less than 1 per cent of international development funding goes to outdoor air quality projects.
Of that percentage, she shared that just 5 per cent goes to Africa, despite being home to some of the most polluted cities, with increasing urbanisation.
Irani explained that this is only going to become more common, too. “We’re going to see so many more people moving to cities in the next couple of years,” she said.
“We want to engage communities, we want to build grassroots support for such initiatives, and finally, we want to share this information across the cities,” Irani explained.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but it’s a great way to get momentum going and hopefully expand this project across more cities.”
Further, Irani said that clean air measures not only save billions of dollars but can also save millions of lives and help facilitate sustainable growth in cities.
Progress on pollution?
Research published in 2023 by the CAF found that in 2021 governments, agencies and development banks spent more money on clean air than fossil fuels for the first time and indeed, we are beginning to see traction on policies and initiatives in this area.
But progress on pollution remains slow, and is not happening at the required scale. Moreover, last year, fossil-fuel subsidies reached a record $7 trillion.
On a regional level, the UAE has introduced its National Air Quality Agenda 2031, which outlines a general framework to maintain air quality and reduce air pollution.
This was discussed at the UAE Pavilion during COP28, where it was outlined that the UAE aims to enhance air quality while leading and coordinating the efforts of federal and local entities and the private sector to effectively monitor and manage air quality and mitigate pollution.
Elsewhere, in Abu Dhabi, the Environment Agency has developed and implemented a multi-theme air quality modelling system aimed at assessing pollution levels and supporting regulation.
Similarly, back in August, HE Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, announced a study assessing the impact of pollution on health, conducted in partnership with the Pure Health group.
In the broader MENA context, initiatives such as the Qualit’air Program in Morocco, and the Greater Cairo Air Pollution Management and Climate Change Project are targeted at improving air quality.
But while these efforts, and results like the Declaration on Climate and Health, backed by over 120 countries at COP28, are a step in the right direction, countries must now make good on pledges and these promising studies and analyses must now translate into concrete clean air policies that target the root cause.
This means phasing out fossil fuels, ramping up renewable energy, accelerating the green mobility shift, and doubling down on industry decarbonisation, with air pollution considerations included within countries’ NDCs.
Looking ahead, as more details slowly emerge about COP29, set to be hosted in Azerbaijan, concerns are being raised once again over a major fossil fuel producer hosting the climate summit.
The country is set to increase its fossil fuel production by a third in the next ten years, and is already among the world’s most fossil fuel-dependent economies.
What the country’s hosting of the summit means for climate and health remains to be seen.
By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena.