The road to net-zero emissions starts with clean air for all

  • Reducing carbon emissions is linked to saving lives and improving health outcomes for children and adults breathing in polluted air.
  • Ensuring clean air saves on healthcare costs and increases productivity among the workforce.
  • The World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines can be a first step to reducing emissions.

My dream is for all children to grow up breathing clean air so that they can live long, healthy lives.

My daughter Ella wasn’t so lucky. Severe asthma, exacerbated by the air pollution from the diesel and petrol vehicle congestion near our London home, sent her to hospital 28 times in 28 months. She passed away at the age of nine in 2013.

Years later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) found 93% of children under 15 worldwide were still breathing toxic air and suffering the lifelong health problems it causes. But I can see that change is within reach, thanks to the growing understanding that a pollution-free world is good for our health, planet, and economy.

The case for clean air

This better appreciation for clean air is driving countries, cities, businesses, hospitals and others to set goals for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions before 2050. In doing so, they are also committing to achieving clean air because the biggest sources of climate-warming emissions – coal, oil and gas – are also behind air pollution.

But achieving clean air by 2050 would be inexcusably too late. The WHO estimated that six years ago, 600,000 children died every year due to air pollution. A 2020 study also found particulate matter in mothers’ placentas, meaning children absorb the pollution before they’re even born.

No level of air pollution is safe to breathe; therefore, following the latest WHO guidelines for air quality levels, protecting human health must be our first step towards reaching net-zero emissions.

The data shows that burning fossil fuels is killing us. Air pollution from coal-fired power plants and diesel and petrol vehicles contributes to one in five premature deaths worldwide or 8.7 million per year. It’s linked to asthma, heart attacks, respiratory infections, cancer, stroke, dementia, infertility, low birth weight, premature births, miscarriages, depression and suicide. It damages childrens’ cognitive development, which will eventually lower the economic value of their skills and work.

Clean air is also good business. It leads to improved public health, lower healthcare costs and more productive workers.

The United Kingdom, for example, would gain three million working days (thanks to fewer sick days) and £1.6 billion per year in economic benefits if it met the WHO’s 2005 air quality guidelines, according to CBI Economics research in 2020. Those benefits would be more significant under the strengthened guidelines the WHO released in September 2021, which could save 80% of the deaths linked to PM2.5 (a dangerous air pollutant) from fossil fuels.

Worldwide, work absences, healthcare costs, premature deaths, preterm births and other health impacts from fossil fuels cost the economy $2.9 trillion in 2018 or 3.3% of GDP. That year, governments spent an astounding $8.3 trillion on health costs or 10% of GDP.

The economic burden of air pollution.

A formidable future

By cleaning the air, we’ll save money on healthcare and generate more productivity from a healthier population.

Not doing so, however, would risk replacing the COVID-19 health crisis with another – air pollution – as warned by London Mayor Sadiq Khan. The combination of “filthy air and gridlocked roads” could cost the London economy as much as £5.1 billion a year, he said on 11 January.

London’s ultra-low emission zone is helping to reduce pollution, following an expansion in October 2021. As of early December 2021, the number of older, more polluting vehicles in the zone had dropped by 47,000, or 37%, with 11,000 fewer vehicles on the road each day. Fewer polluting vehicles means fewer hospitalizations and lower healthcare costs. And the more people walk and cycle rather than drive, the more foot traffic there is to support local businesses and keep high streets alive.

Businesses are beginning to take important steps, too. For example, IKEA – one of 10 business members of the World Economic Forum’s Alliance for Clean Air – is reducing air pollution from agricultural crop burning in India by turning crop residues that would otherwise be burned into materials for a new furniture collection. It also partnered with civil society groups at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) to introduce a guide for businesses to measure air pollution across their value chains and reduce it.

I’m optimistic that children today can grow up breathing clean air because we know how to reduce it and why we should. But only if we move now.

Only if every country, city and business follows the WHO’s 2021 air quality guidelines as a first step to reaching net zero emissions before 2050.

I know this is possible because I’ve seen how much has changed since Ella passed away.

In 2013, I didn’t know that air pollution was stoking her severe asthma. I could only see what it was doing to her. She was drowning in her own mucus. She was admitted into intensive care five times and put into an induced coma. During the coroner’s inquest into Ella’s death in December 2020, experts explained that 27 of Ella’s 28 hospitalizations coincided with spikes in air pollution from nearby traffic, including on the night she died.

Ella is now the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate. The coroner found that preventing future deaths like Ella’s requires the UK to reduce its air pollution according to the WHO’s guidelines.

Reducing air pollution is a goal we should all want to achieve as quickly as possible. COVID-19 has shown us that a weak and unwell population leads to a weak and ailing economy, but a healthy, thriving population will allow businesses and the economy to thrive.