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Blue sky thinking: tackling air pollution to increase ambition for the climate change agenda

As the global community prepares to mark the first International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, countries of all income and development levels are demonstrating that a focus on local air pollution can raise ambition needed to address global climate change.

Chris Malley, Karen Brandon / Published on 4 September 2020

Research in behavioural psychology suggests that tangible achievements can spur people on to greater success. Setting goals that offer visible, attainable results, even if incremental, can motivate people to aspire to and achieve higher aims that are very difficult, and that can seem beyond reach.

This same kind of motivational thinking is surfacing in the effort to address climate change. An emerging theme in the efforts to ratchet up to the global ambition needed to meet the sheer magnitude of the goals of the Paris Agreement is taking aim at using another route: emphasizing what can be achieved by focusing on the demonstrable, local benefits of taking certain actions – which themselves also help turn climate mitigation targets into reality.

Blue skies: a metaphor for greater ambition

Air pollution offers a prime example of the trend by capitalizing on “blue sky thinking”, both metaphorically and literally.

The first International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies taking place on September 7th was organized by the United Nations Environment Programme to raise public awareness about the need to improve air quality. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role in increasing public attention on this issue. Pandemic shutdowns in some places allowed people to see vistas that had been shrouded in smog for a generation. This offered people a glimpse of what is possible if the world cleans up pollution sources.

Exposure to air pollution is the world’s largest environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution in a given area can contribute to improved public health, longer lives and improved well-being. The results are measurable – reduced medical expenditures – and visible – clear, blue skies.

Many actions that reduce air pollution also reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, meaning that these same measures can be leveraged to put greater ambition into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that are the cornerstone of the Paris Agreement. The tangible benefits of cleaner air may thus incentivize actions that complement the motivation to be part of the worldwide mission to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2oC”. This is true for both lower- and middle-income countries whose contributions to global warming may be small but whose benefits from reduced pollution may be great, and for higher-income countries that are still contending with air pollution issues.

Join us for the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies

On Monday 7 September, 15:00-16:30 BST, SEI and partner organizers will host the webinar “Building back better: why we must address air pollution to tackle public health and climate change”.

In the webinar, an expert panel will explore the links between air pollution, health, COVID-19 recovery and climate mitigation, and discuss holistic solutions to address these issues.

Read more and register.

Countries of all income and development levels offer examples

Countries that are now beginning to submit their enhanced NDCs offer examples of how a focus on air pollution can increase climate change mitigation ambition:

In June, for example, the government of Chile set out a new air pollution target: to cut black carbon emissions by 25% by 2030 – adding to its enhanced climate change mitigation target that commits to greenhouse gas emissions peaking in 2025 at the latest, consistent with a long-term vision for the country of complete decarbonization by 2050. Black carbon is one of the “short-lived climate pollutants”’ that directly contribute to global temperature increases in the near-term, and to air pollution health impacts. Actions such as changes in home heating will aim to reduce black carbon emissions.

In May 2020, Rwanda published its updated NDC, committing to a 38% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2030, conditional on international support. This substantially increased ambition stems from an evaluation of GHG mitigation actions on key pollution and development issues: “local pollution reduction, energy security, energy access, and poverty” in the development of the climate policy. Key actions identified in Rwanda’s updated NDC that will improve air quality include more efficient cookstoves, switching to electric vehicles, and vehicle emission standards.

In July 2019, the government of Mongolia identified improving air quality as a key development priority to reduce the prevalence of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and growing healthcare expenditures. In addition, Mongolia has updated its NDC commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 22.7%. At present, almost half of the population of Mongolia’s 3.2 million people live in  the capital, Ulaanbaatar, which has air pollution concentrations almost six times higher than World Health Organization air quality guidelines. An assessment of Mongolia’s updated NDC showed that Mongolia’s climate change actions could reduce emissions of key air pollutants by approximately 10%, which is on top of actions designed specifically for air pollution abatement. A focus will be reducing use of coal in home heating.

High-income countries are also taking note of this approach. In June 2020, the United Kingdom’s Air Quality Expert Group, which advises the government on air quality issues, published a report on the impacts of net-zero greenhouse gas emission pathways on air quality in the UK. The report reviews possible positive and negative effects of decarbonization in the UK on air quality – making clear that different options for achieving the net-zero goal have different effects on local air quality. For example, decarbonizing the transport fleet will improve air quality by reducing tailpipe air pollutant emissions, but will not reduce emissions from resuspension of road dust; by contrast, changes to increase walking, cycling and public transport use are integral to deliver optimal air quality benefits in a net-zero strategy.

Guidance for countries to achieve local and global goals

SEI’s work in this area takes place in part as a member of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a voluntary partnership of governments intergovernmental organizations, businesses and scientific institutions and civil society organizations committed to improving air quality and protecting the climate. As part of this collaboration, the partnership produced a practical guidance document “Opportunities for Increasing Ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions through Integrated Air Pollution and Climate Change Planning”. Published in December 2019, this report provides a step-by-step guide for countries to use to integrate air pollution into their climate change planning processes by

  • identifying four opportunities to enhance NDCs in ways that mitigate air pollution,
  • summarizing key mitigation actions that have substantial air pollution and climate mitigation potentials, and
  • providing a practical framework for how air pollution benefits can be evaluated within greenhouse gas mitigation assessments.

SEI is also working with countries to help give them tools to undertake planning in ways designed to achieve more ambitious NDCs and to realize Sustainable Development Goals. This is the focus of a new agenda: the Initiative on Climate and Development Planning.

Written by

Chris Malley

Senior Research Fellow

SEI York

Karen Brandon
Karen Brandon

Senior Communications Officer and Editor


SEI Oxford

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