The World Bank and IMF must put a value on clean air

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark in Auckland, New Zealand, September 2, 2023. REUTERS/David Rowland

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark in Auckland, New Zealand, September 2, 2023. REUTERS/David Rowland

Air pollution is a "silent killer", say former New Zealand PM and former WHO chief scientist

Helen Clark is former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Soumya Swaminathan is former Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization. 

As you read this, you’re likely inhaling a deadly substance. A silent killer lurking in cities, homes, schools and workplaces, claiming more than 7 million lives every year. Dirty air is the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

The impact on our health is terrifying. On average, each of us loses 2.2 years of life because of air pollution. The toll on economies is equally staggering, with an estimated 1.2 billion workdays lost annually due to the effects of dirty air – which could soar to 3.8 billion by 2060.

Next week’s World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Spring Meetings present a crucial opportunity for global leaders to make clean air a priority.

Despite the alarming statistics, air pollution has not received the attention it deserves. Because pollution is often invisible, it’s easy to take clean air for granted. For example, less than 1% of international development funding currently goes to clean air projects. 

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As co-chairs of the Our Common Air Commission, we believe that three crucial measures should be on the IMF and World Bank’s agendas.

First, investment. It may seem obvious, but this isn’t just another call for more money, and clean air does not necessarily mean finding new funds.

In fact, many of our existing public finance flows are already delivering clean air as a byproduct. For example, funding to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to slow climate change, will also reduce air pollution. Such solutions should be recognised and reinforced, by making clean air an explicit and measurable goal.

Additional funding entities may be required to target clean air outcomes not delivered by existing programmes, but these should be established carefully to ensure they add value and unlock more money.

Tackling air pollution will have benefits that go beyond cleaner air - boosting health, cutting emissions, accelerating technological development, enabling sustainable economic development, and reducing poverty and gender inequality. As such, clean air should be prioritised as an investment with a huge return.

Clean air action is climate action: it is both a pre-condition and consequence of securing a 1.5-degree world. It also builds our resilience and ability to adapt to climate change, including extreme weather events and forest fires.

It’s important, therefore, that clean air initiatives are not seen as competing with climate finance. On the contrary, we should seek win-win solutions such as repurposing some of the $1.3 trillion in wasteful fossil fuel subsidies that are spent annually from national budgets on clean air policies.

But it’s not just about money. In our opinion, the second action on governments’ agendas should be establishing a way of measuring progress, so we know where we could do better.

Currently, we have no single, credible way of tracking global air pollution levels. Governments should set targets and report on them annually, or possibly have interim targets in line with their baselines and development levels. And we need an ambitious global goal for reducing air pollution, like net zero by 2050.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to move from seeing air pollution as a liability to seeing clean air as an asset.  Clean air is not just something that costs money to achieve – it’s an investment. It enhances health, productivity and economies. To that end, we need to quantify the value of clean air - in terms of increased incomes and reduced health care costs, for example.

Only when we start seeing clean air as an asset of value - for our health, our environment and our economies - will we recognise the need to make clean air a reality for us all.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Adaptation
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