Empty freeways and clear skies in Los Angeles during the COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: adamkaz / Getty Images

The publication, “Call for comments: climate and clean air responses to covid-19”, issues a clarion call to the global scientific and policy community to come together to devise a pandemic economic recovery that addresses key world aims, including mitigating climate change and promoting sustainable development. The comment was signed by a group of 19 international scientific experts on air pollution and climate change. The authors include the members of the Scientific Advisory Panel of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and four other invited experts. They represent 16 research institutions worldwide, including SEI, whose own work has clearly demonstrated the capacity of certain strategies to achieve multiple climate change and sustainable development goals.

“Many people in the world, some for the first time, are inadvertently experiencing what it is like to live with clean air; this benefit does not have to come at the expense of our security and economic future,” the statement says. “By addressing climate, air pollution, and sustainable development as an integrated problem we can identify technologies, lifestyle changes and policy solutions which achieve multiple near-term benefits efficiently, sustainably and often at lower-cost than solutions that do not consider both the economy and the environment.”

The authors identify solutions that can deliver economic and social objectives and, at the same time, protect air and climate. They outline eight categories that warrant investment and attention:

  • Developing, deploying and integrating the use of clean, renewable energy instead of fossil fuels to ensure equitable and affordable access for all.
  • Implementing measures that reduce short-lived climate pollutants by addressing emissions from the burning or collection of municipal solid waste. These measures are often low/no-cost, and quickly achieve multiple-near term economic, public health, and social benefits, the authors note.
  • Adopting policies and regulations that improve indoor air quality by incentivizing energy access and energy efficiency of buildings and appliances.
  • Preserving and expanding forests and other natural sinks.
  • Creating sustainable food systems, reducing food waste, and promoting healthy diets.
  • Establishing more local, circular and, low-carbon economies that incentivize safe reuse, remanufacturing and recycling of products.
  • Creating resilient supply chains.
  • Making transport systems sustainable by encouraging active travel, working from home, and implementing policies to reduce both daily commuting and business travel.
  • Investing in knowledge institutions, especially in the Global South, to strengthen capability to produce high-quality and context-relevant analyses, and to build the requisite human resources.

“The speed with which emissions have fallen shows how quickly we can improve our environment when motivated.”

The panel noted that the significant reductions in many air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions as a result of efforts to stem the COVID-19 pandemic offer “a stark confirmation of the contribution of our everyday activities to sources of emissions of the air pollutants that we breathe and the greenhouse gases that drive global warming”.

“The speed with which emissions have fallen shows how quickly we can improve our environment when motivated,” the group statement said. Authors also noted that similar decreases in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have occurred for short-term events, as the result of the clean-air policies put in place for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and during the 2008-2009 global recession.

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is a global organization that unites governments, civil society and private sector in commiting to improve air quality and protecting the climate. The Coalition’s Scientific Advisory Panel includes 15 international experts – among them SEI Senior Research Leader Johan C.I. Kuylenstierna – who advise the coalition on scientific matters.

SEI’s work chimes with the principles outlined in the published call for action. Over the past decade, SEI and many partners have contributed to research, capacity building and planning at global, regional and national levels. This work clearly demonstrates the opportunity to design and develop strategies that can have multiple benefits for improving air quality, mitigating climate change and achieving other sustainable development goals. At the global and regional scale, for example, a 2011 assessment of black carbon and tropospheric ozone by United Nations Environment Programme / World Meteorological Organization showed that the top 16 mitigation measures to reduce black carbon and methane, if implemented globally would have achieved many disparate goals. It would avoid the following: 2.4 million premature deaths, 52 million tonnes of crop yield loss in 2030, and 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2050. Regionally in 2019, estimates in the Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific: Science-Based Solutions report showed that implementing the top 25 “clean air measures” would likely bring 1 billion people in Asia within World Health Organization guidelines for clean air to protect human health. Implementing these same 25 actions was also expected to avoid 0.3 degrees Celsius of global warming.

At the national scale, SEI has worked through the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Supporting National Action & Planning (SNAP) initiative to support countries in developing national action plans and strategies to achieve clean air and mitigate climate change. Such plans include the first National Action Plan to reduce air pollutants in the Maldives, which, if implemented, could reduce particulate emission by 60%, while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 24%. In Cote d’Ivoire, the National Action Plan to reduce SLCPs showed that 16 mitigation measures could substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by 19% in 2030) and substantially improve air quality, which would result in an estimated 1 000 avoided premature deaths in 2030 from reduced air pollution exposure. Similar plans and strategies have been developed, finalized and endorsed in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Colombia, Mexico, Chile, and Bangladesh.

SEI has also contributed to research showing that the actions that can be taken to simultaneously improve air quality and mitigate climate change also have a range of other benefits. In 2017, SEI researchers (as part of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition Scientific Advisory Panel) published an assessment of the sustainable development goal benefits of mitigation actions on short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), which play an important role in climate change. The work showed that measures that reduce SLCPs can also achieve multiple other sustainable development goals, including those goals related to human health, energy access, eradicating poverty, infrastructure, and water and sanitation.