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The long overdue paradigm shift towards a healthy, carbon neutral economy starts with cleaning our air

Air quality management – a fascinating lineage

I grew up in Cairo. A city that shows all the typical traits of an emerging economy when it comes to air quality and health. I grew up in a household of doctors, who spent their lifetime researching the delicate relationship between the air we breathe and our health. Here is a paper co-written by my dad for The Lancet Journal on the “Effect of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide on airway response of mild asthmatic patients to allergen inhalation” written back in 1998. So imagine you grow up seeing and hearing about the “Black Cloud” of Cairo and the rise of patient visits in my parents’ clinic around the dinner table. Or discussions on best treatment options for patients during the long drives towards the Egyptian Red Sea coast with its windy fresh air. Thus, I always understood the topic of air pollution within a context – the context of bad health indicators, exacerbated symptoms, increased healthcare expenditures and overall reduced life quality.

The notion that air quality is more than just a concentration value or a legal threshold to adhere to is not new. It is a recurring theme throughout human history.

  • Roman philosopher Seneca in 61 AD stated: “As soon as I had escaped the heavy air of Rome and the stench of its smoky chimneys, which when stirred poured forth whatever pestilent vapours and soot they held enclosed I felt a change in my disposition”
  • Famous polymath Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariyyā ar-Rāzī, or as known in the western world as Rhazes, was reported to have hung raw pieces of meat all over the city of Baghdad to investigate the best suitable location to build the largest hospital of the time in the 9th century, choosing the location where the meat remained freshest.
  • Canary birds helping miners to detect carbon monoxides and other toxic gasses before they hurt humans operating in those ghastly conditions.

A fascinating lineage which we commit to follow today

Air pollution knows no boundaries, neither in a geographical sense nor in its sequential impact across all facets of our lives. Today, it has reached a scale beyond all bearing. Its detrimental effects now impact human health, human mobility, climate change and even food security. It is causing more cases of preemptive deaths globally than AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined, making it the greatest environmental health risk of our time according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  As such, solving this challenge needs a system approach that qualms the adverse effect of bad air quality across all the above-mentioned sectors.  It is time for a paradigm shift, when it comes how we deal and what we do with air quality data.

As intuitive as it may seem to use air quality data and data-driven insights to optimize everyday processes in ecological terms, the hitherto developed methods, unfortunately, seem to have lost their purpose. Highly sophisticated and expensive apparatus measure air pollution in our cities today. The data is barely accessible, let alone applied to address challenges of public health, mobility, climate change and urban planning on a scale fit for the size of the problem at-hand.  J. Pentreath wrote in 1998: “At present systems for monitoring and gathering information are inefficient and wasteful. They generate excessive amounts of data on subjects which do not need it; They fail to provide timely and relevant information on other subjects where it is urgent.’”

And the urgency has never been stronger and the willingness to act has never been greater. Air pollution has become one of the most important avoidable risk to health globally. Many studies have found harmful effects of air pollution on a continuum of exposure that extends down into levels considered safe by national standards. These effects are noticeable in all bodily systems and not only the lungs. (Read on the excess mortality of COVID-19 through air pollution here).

Short-Lived-Climate-Pollutants

Black Carbon and tropospheric ozone are also considered climate pollutants. They belong to the group of “Short-Lived-Climate Pollutants” (SLCPs). Why are they called “short-lived”? Because their atmospheric lifetime is a fraction of that of CO2.

UNEP and WHO (2011). Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone. UNEP, Nairobi

This is both a threat and an opportunity: measures curbing SLCPs generate their impact within weeks, while Methane and CO2 abatement measures require decades, if not centuries. So, by focusing on mitigating air pollution we are tackling a perpetrator that is harming both our health and our climate. In fact, according to the WHO and UNEP, climate change mitigation will only be possible when SLCPs and CO2 are addressed simultaneously.

UNEP and WHO (2011). Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone. UNEP, Nairobi

In an effort to internalize environmental aspects in mainstream processes, several companies using comprehensive carbon footprint calculating software to support businesses in reducing their carbon footprint along their core processes. This is greatly needed, but we also need to take air pollution into account when using such tools. 215 of the biggest global companies recently reported that 1trillion$ worth of assets was at risk due to climate impacts in the next five years. They also state that climate business opportunities are calculated at $2.1trillion and we are convinced – for the above reasons – that cleaning our air is the pathway to unlocking this potential.

Converting our world into data and insights

For the first time in human history, the technology exists today to monitor every single emission – of every city, every airport, every harbour, every street, every factory, industry park and wildfire. At our disposal are tools to hold those accountable that do not adhere to environmental commitments and those using their resources lavishly. It forms the basis of understanding the complex intricacies of our planet, the interdependence of our ecosystems.

Exposed number of people vs. actual NO2 concentration

But even better, it forms the basis for new products and services that reward those who take air quality into account when managing (public) health, planning traffic, investing in and building new properties with cleaner air.