Air pollution affects people of all ages and across all social classes throughout the world – from the devastating forest fires wreaking havoc on California to worsening air quality conditions in India. The impacts, however, are felt most strongly by the poorest and most vulnerable – the old, the young, people living with pre-existing health conditions and those in areas of greatest exposure to dirty air.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution kills 7 million people worldwide and is the second leading cause of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer, heart and lung disease, stroke and diabetes. It also has a massive impact on economies, estimated at $5.1 trillion, says the World Bank.

Fossil fuel energy production, industrial and transport systems, urbanisation, domestic energy use and agriculture are all sources of C02 and other air pollutants (e.g. black carbon, ozone and methane). One way or another, all air pollutants have an impact on human health and most adversely contribute to climate change.

But just as air pollution and climate change are closely linked, they can have similar solutions – whether it’s reducing the burning of coal or kerosene, or relying less on cars and more on cycling and walking and improved public transportation. The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C makes the case that limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being.

Air pollution – whether industrial- or agricultural-based emissions – is often a transboundary issue and a number of mechanisms have emerged to address it. One of the most successful collaborative air pollution conventions today is the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLTRAP), which addresses the impacts and sources of acid rain and sulphur (amongst other pollutants) across most of the Northern Hemisphere. More recently, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Air Pollution has mobilised action on haze from agricultural and forest burning across South East Asia. Participating countries have joined the convention as they perceive there are benefits, such as a better environment and good health.

Data, knowledge and competency gaps, however, need to be filled for a more complete understanding of air pollution and to support actions. For example, air pollution monitors have already made a difference in informing policy resulting in reduced pollution levels in countries such as China. Better presentation of costs and benefits of pollution control interventions, the trade-offs across sectors and the wider economic impacts have successfully leveraged policy actions and legislation on air pollution in Chile and Mexico.

Data presented in reports, such as the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report – with its county-level score card – enable better transparency, in particular identifying on whom the costs and benefits fall. Campaigns such as the WHO’s BreatheLife Campaign are also necessary to mobilise action by citizens and influence public policy, demonstrating that air pollution is not the inevitable consequence of growth. Public engagement and mobilisation typically works well at the city level, but has been less effective in shifting changes in practice and behaviour by the polluting sectors.

If business, industry and financial sectors were required to consider health risks in their policies, investments and activities, there would be a better understanding of the gains and trade-offs from each action. But this requires interventions source by source and sector by sector to accelerate actions around air pollution, and as a result climate change.

By Sam Bickersteth, Executive Director, The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health