We all need to breathe: how philanthropy can act now to tackle air pollution


Liz McKeon


Last week, I took part in an air quality meeting in Delhi co-hosted by the newly launched India Climate Collaborative (ICC) and our partner, the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation. The meeting brought together philanthropies, think tanks and civil society organisations taking action to tackle air pollution in India.

While I was in Delhi, the Air Quality Index (AQI) averaged 184, meaning the air was ‘unhealthy’ and, at certain times, it rose above 400 on the index, which meant it was ‘hazardous’. In comparison, a ‘good’ AQI value is between 0 and 50.

From a personal point of view, even while I was inside, I was very aware of the pollution and the effect it was having on my breathing and feeling of well-being.

Delhi is not alone. Cities and towns all around the world face the same issue. The World Health Organisation reports that nine out of 10 people globally are breathing air that is damaging their health.

Build unprecedented collaborations
In India, we are working with partners who are acting on air quality on many different levels. Some of our partners are engaging with the government to help it realise the ambition of the National Clean Air Program (NCAP) launched in January 2019. At the same time, business coalitions are fighting to reduce manufacturing-related emissions, while grassroots activists are campaigning to raise citizens’ awareness.

We believe that through unprecedented collaboration, Indian-led partnerships will find solutions. For example, our partner Shakti supported a multi-year effort to cut emissions from the transport sector, including reducing the share of the diesel car fleet in India. This informed the Government of India’s decision to adopt more stringent standards for vehicle emissions by 2020.

As diesel vehicles require a higher investment to comply with these standards, Maruti Suzuki India, the largest car manufacturer in the country, announced it will stop making diesel cars in April this year. It is expected that other manufacturers of small and medium cars will follow suit.

The IKEA Foundation has committed €700 million to climate-related work between 2015 and 2023, which includes air quality programmes. Now, we’re calling on other philanthropies and donors to make clean air a top priority. But how can the donor community engage effectively to create the biggest impact?

Act as a bridge
One way, I believe, is by funding partners to bridge dialogues between ministries of health, environment, transport, urban planning, energy and finance so that holistic policies can be developed and financed. There is no silver bullet solution. We need a broad spectrum of options around mobility and power generation that are based in evidence and meet people’s needs.

During the meeting, I was encouraged to learn that when cities undertake well-planned, publicly financed walkways, cycle lanes and tree planting, people really do decide to walk or cycle to work. Giving people good reasons to be outdoors reinforces the public need to reduce air pollution.

We can also build momentum by supporting data collection on source apportionment, which in turn gives officials and the public accurate information on what is causing poor air quality in specific regions or neighbourhoods. We can increase public awareness through campaigns around how families can safeguard their health and what citizens can do to demand their elected officials make air quality a top priority. Consumers need reliable information when making choices on products marketed to reduce their exposure to air pollution. These range from air purifiers to electric vehicles to clean cooking options.

Invest in the science
We also need more investment in scientific research into the near-term and long-term consequences of breathing and ingesting fine particles (PM2.5 and PM10). We know that air pollution causes respiratory damage and shortens life expectancy, but evidence from recent medical studies published in The Lancet and Nature has linked air pollution to compromised foetal development.

I think it’s clear that short-term investments in clean air—to protect our health and that of our children—will save immense health care expenditures in the future. And by tackling air pollution, and its damaging effects on our respiratory and immune systems, we can strengthen communities’ resilience to public health threats such as Coronavirus.

Of course, cleaner air is not only better for our health. The main sources of air pollution—transport, industrial emissions and power generation—are also major contributors to climate change. By improving air quality, we can protect both our health and the health of our planet.

This is an issue that affects everyone; we all need to breathe. But it’s a problem we can solve if we work together. Let’s start right now, because clean air is a human right.

Liz McKeon is Programme Lead for the IKEA Foundation Climate Action Programme, and the chair of Alliance Publishing Trust.

Comments (3)

Amar Choudhary

Hello Liz I am writing this mail to attract your attention towards the patented technology to curb air pollution. We believe with our patented technology innovation, we can carve out a good market for Vehicle Mounted air Purifiers in the Clean tech segment. Request to help on the project funding avenue so that we can build the solution for the common good. About ShudhVayu (SV): ShudhVayu Air purifier is a patented technology and a powerful solution to make our city clean without much investment. SV attracted interest from Govt./NGO/Social Community and common citizens too. The air filter is empowering citizens of Delhi (at present) to clean the external environment while driving their vehicle. The device can work without any power and is self-sustained, easy to operate, and maintain. IIT Delhi has approved the effectiveness of the air filter and Department of Science and Technology (DST), The government of India funded the project for R&D purpose. Expecting a reply. Regards Amar Choudhary amar@shudhvayu.com CEO_ShudhVayu www.shudhvayu.com


One critical contributor to air pollution in India, including New Delhi, is burning of crop residue. Lets keep it in the mix of challenges that need to be addressed

Poornima Prabhakaran

Building compelling narratives on the health impacts of air pollution and climate change , given the intricate linkages between the sources of both these environmental issues and the co-benefits of addressing the two ,must occupy centre-stage. The collective momentum, driven by people working on different aspects - source apportionment, emission inventories, decentralised air action and climate action plans for every state and district in India as well those engaged in growing the evidence -base of the health and economic impacts of a young and growing economy like India requires strategic catalytic impetus from philanthropists. Add a good perspective on social issues like alternative livelihoods for those impacted by our advocacy on fossil fuel combustion, coal phase-down and phase-out -and we have a composite unified agenda!

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