Air pollution is an underfunded and under-monitored problem

Particulate air pollution (PM2.5) is the world’s greatest external risk to human health, taking more years off average human life expectancy than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Yet, this significant health burden has been severely underfunded and consequently under-monitored—especially in the most polluted and data-poor regions.

Outdoor air pollution receives less than 64 million USD worldwide from philanthropic foundations (2021), comparable to what Americans are estimated to lose each year in spare change. Meanwhile, the countries with the worst pollution receive the least amount of philanthropic support. Ninety-six percent of total life years lost due to particulate pollution occur in Asia, Africa and Latin America, while just 4 percent of total life years lost occur in Europe, the United States, and Canada. Yet, Europe, the United States, and Canada receive the majority of philanthropic foundation funding devoted to addressing air pollution, 34 million USD per year. The entire continent of Africa receives less than 300,000 USD, roughly the current price of a single-family home in the United States.

With less funding, the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America also have less publicly accessible information about the quality of the air they breathe. In Europe, the United States, and Canada, 69.2 percent of governments produce open air quality data. However, just 3.7, 6.8 and 19 percent of governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America, respectively, provide this data.

Reliable air quality monitoring and data is at the foundation of confronting pollution

The history of progress on air pollution in countries such as Japan, the United States, England and China, reveals that improvements in air quality were preceded by the public demanding improvements and causing air quality to become a political priority. The foundation for these demands was data that illustrated the depth of the problem and then, later, data to assess progress such as by providing a guidepost for setting air quality standards and to evaluate their progress.

When U.S. embassies in countries around the world started installing air pollution monitors and displaying the data publicly, a startling impact was observed: In non-OECD countries where PM2.5 monitors were deployed to locations where there were no or very little publicly PM2.5 data already available, annual PM2.5 levels in the cities with them were observed to decrease by more than 10 µg m-3 over six years. This decline, if sustained, could translate into a year of added life expectancy for those who breathe that cleaner air.

Without basic data on the quality of air, it is difficult to further research on the impacts of air pollution, galvanize citizens to call for clean air actions, and build policies to confront the largest environmental threat to human health: PM2.5. Thus, our theory of change is that closing air quality data gaps can allow people to lead healthier and longer lives.

There is a high opportunity for impact

Given the neglected nature of the issue and the necessity and relative low-cost of generating and sharing PM2.5 data compared to its impact, there is a golden philanthropic opportunity to directly support local actors to generate this information in ‘PM2.5 data gap’ countries. To identify locations with the highest possibilities for national-level impact, we have developed a metric called the “Opportunity Score,” and using that metric have identify 46 “High Opportunity” countries.

In these countries:

  • 838 million people breath air with PM2.5 levels four-times higher than the World Health Organization guideline.
  • There is no existing fully open air quality data produced by the governments.
  • There are only 30 government-run PM2.5 monitors. In comparison, the country of Finland—one of the few countries that already meets the WHO guideline—has more monitors for its population that is 1/152nth of those 46 countries.
  • Only 11 percent have national ambient air quality standards.
  • 74 percent receive less than 100,000 USD from international donors to address outdoor air pollution, less than the annual amount needed to sustainably run a single government-grade PM2.5 monitor. In fact, all of those countries combined receive less than 73,000 USD combined annually.

High impact can come with minimal investment

A $50,000 to $100,000 a year investment could enable local actors to conduct sustained monitoring, produce open data, and engage their communities in a way that would have a national-level impact in reducing pollution. Taking this finding and other factors into account, a $4 to $8 million annual global injection of funding could make substantial progress in closing PM2.5 data gaps across the world.

“There are few philanthropic opportunities in which $100,000 has the potential to have a national-level impact on a major public health issue,”– Christa Hasenkopf, Director, Clean Air Program

Local Actors

Local actors play the key role in driving long-term clean air action given the complex social and political dynamics at national- or subnational-levels that must be navigated and the often local nature of both sources and impacts of air pollution. Additionally, understanding the local actor landscape is necessary to develop best practices for providing resources, like finding a meaningful level of funding to local actors, identifying current barriers, and understanding opportunities local actors identify for their work.

For these reasons, the local actor landscape is a key component of how we have calculated the opportunity for national-level impact. We created a public registry of PM2.5 data gap closing entities and individuals and have sought to populate that registry with every relevant local effort we could find and that was willing to be part of the registry. Registrants have come from a variety of fields, including the research community, technology sector, health care community, and non-profit space.

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