Breathe in, breathe out: Solving the air pollution crisis one city at a time | WWF
Breathe in, breathe out: Solving the air pollution crisis one city at a time

Posted on 05 June 2019

First, the bad news. The world is in the grip of an air pollution crisis. An estimated  nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Air pollution is one of the leading threats to child health, accounting for almost 1 in 10 deaths in children under five years of age. New research suggests that exposure to air pollution could cause almost 9 million deaths each year, twice the earlier estimates.


Sadly, poorer parts of the world suffer the most. Bangladesh, Pakistan and India had the worst air quality in 2018, according to air quality monitoring company AirVisual. Overall, 91 per cent of the premature deaths caused by air pollution occur in low- and middle-income countries, according to WHO data.


Air pollution is not only damaging our health – it’s also deteriorating our economies. The World Bank calculated that premature deaths from air pollution led to lost income of $225 billion in 2013, the equivalent, for some countries in South Asia, of almost 1 per cent of their GDP. Calculating welfare losses – a broader measure used by governments to estimate the costs and benefits of regulations – those figures rise to a staggering $5.1 trillion, or an average of around 7.5 percent of GDP for countries in South and East Asia.


The causes of air pollution are well understood. Most is from the burning of fossil fuels, whether coal to produce electricity, or diesel and gasoline to power vehicles. Agriculture contributes through fertiliser use, burning waste and clearing forests.


But the good news is that we know how to tackle the problem. As long  as 1956, the passage of the Clean Air Act in the UK and its introduction of ‘smoke control zones’ successfully putting an end to pollution events such as the Great Smog of 1952, which killed 12,000 Londoners. More recently, efforts by the Chinese government to improve air quality are paying dividends, following an air quality plan that has curbed industrial emissions and banned household coal burning.


Air pollution is the focus of this year’s World Environment Day. It is also the subject of one of WWF’s initiatives, the One Planet Cities Challenge (OPCC). The OPCC is inspiring cities to develop and showcase initiatives to limit climate change, improve air quality, and make cities more sustainable, liveable and dynamic.


Over half of the world’s inhabitants live in cities and by 2050, that figure will have risen to two thirds. Cities account for 70 per cent of carbon emissions and generate more than 80 per cent of the global GDP. They are also often hotbeds of innovation, creating and road-testing solutions to the world’s sustainability challenges.


One of the world’s fastest growing cities, Pune in India is undergoing an ambitious re-engineering to put its transport system on to a sustainable footing, cutting greenhouse gases and local air pollution while improving public health. By investing in public transport, bicycle lanes, a bike-sharing system and the redesign of public spaces to encourage walking, it is aiming for sustainable transport to account for 80% of all journeys by 2027.


A more unusual initiative is underway in Guatemala City, where the Barranco Invertido project is seeking to reclaim the ravines that account for almost half of the city’s land area. By integrating these oases of nature into the life of the city, the project aims to generate ecological, social and economic benefits for the city – not least in ensuring the ravines contribute to improved air quality. Planting trees is an effective way to combat air pollution, second only to reducing traffic emissions.


These initiatives are just two of hundreds underway in cities around the world to address the challenges of air pollution, climate change and environmental degradation. They are showing how an increasingly urbanised global population can retain its connections to nature, while at the same time living as lightly as possible upon the planet.

We are just beginning to tackle the air pollution crisis, and it is crucial that we do it alongside the climate crisis. Mayors and local governments need to show leadership by demonstrating the vision to tackle pollution while ensuring joined up public administration – making the connections between health and transport departments, putting environmental considerations at the heart of urban planning, and exerting pressure on national and regional government to make sure they play their part.

We have no time to lose. 2020 will be a key year for climate action. Cities are well placed to be the drivers of change for addressing both air pollution and the climate crisis.


Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice. He is based in Lima, Peru.

The main building at the New Delhi railway station is hidden by smog (31 December 2017).
© Sumita Roy Dutta