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. This significant health burden has been severely underfunded, and one consequence is that many parts of the world lack basic information on the extent of the air pollution problem—especially in the most polluted regions. The entire continent of Africa, for example, receives less than $300,000 annually to reduce pollution from philanthropic foundations, roughly the price of a single-family home in the United States.
A new report evaluates which countries could benefit the most from small, strategic investments in air pollution monitoring and open data platforms. This information is critical because the history of air pollution progress reveals that illustrating the depth of the pollution problem is beneficial for multiple reasons, including providing people with the information they need to protect themselves, giving them the basis to demand change, and providing a guidepost for policymakers to set and evaluate goals.
“We have learned time and again through history that progress in confronting air pollution begins on the ground with citizens demanding change,” says report co-author Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). “From the experiences of Japan, the United States, China and many other countries, it is clear that data on air quality is necessary for change to begin. This report underscores the need for this data and provides a plan to strategically target the regions that could benefit the most.”
With nearly 1 billion people around the world lacking open access to government provided pollution data, Greenstone, Christa Hasenkopf, the director of EPIC’s Clean Air programs, and their co-authors authored, “The Case for Closing Global Air Quality Data Gaps with Local Actors: A Golden Opportunity for the Philanthropic Community” that identifies the countries where real-time, on the ground air pollution data is needed the most. They consider factors like a country’s estimated level of pollution from satellites that provide a snapshot of the pollution challenge, as well as population, number of existing monitors and open data, and current funding for pollution. From this they identify 46 countries where there are the largest opportunities for small, well-supported efforts to effect national-level policy changes and pollution reductions by monitoring local pollution and providing data access. Sixty-one percent of these countries are in Africa, 22 percent in Asia, 15 percent in Latin America, and 2 percent in Europe.
In these high opportunity countries, a total of 838 million people breathe air with particulate pollution levels that are four-times higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline—taking an average 1.6 years off life expectancy. There are 30 government air quality monitors sharing data in these 46 countries. As a point of contrast, Finland—one of the few countries that already meets the WHO guideline and with roughly 1/150th the population of these 46 countries—has more monitors available for its citizens.
The report, supported by Open Philanthropy, provides a strategic playbook for funding organizations as well as entities working on global to local public health and environmental issues, highlighting high payoff opportunities to make progress. It finds $50,000 to $100,000 a year 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, the authors find that 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,” says Christa Hasenkopf, of EPIC. “Our analysis reveals that funders can make a powerful impact on one of—if not the—greatest global risks to human health.”
In order to fill the pollution data gap, the report provides maximally-effective pathways forward for funders: 1) Support local actors who inherently have a longer-term commitment to pollution monitoring and a keener understanding of the on-the-ground landscape; 2) Fund monitors, but also the people and infrastructure behind them; 3) Provide a strategy for multi-year funding as making significant impacts in pollution demands years of collaborative efforts; 4) Be flexible through unrestricted grants and allow varied approaches across countries.
Because local actors play the key role in driving long-term clean air action, the authors created a public registry of local actors who are actively engaged in pollution monitoring and data access in countries around the world.
This report lays important groundwork for a large-scale EPIC project to bring high quality and high frequency air pollution monitoring and data access to the places of the world where it is needed most. This project will join other EPIC clean air initiatives that underscore the need for this critical data. This includes the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), which uses air pollution data to translate the impact of pollution on a person’s life expectancy for communities around the world. Providing both an understanding of the amount of pollution and what it means to people’s health can become a critical motivator to call for action. Further, EPIC researchers are working with Indian government officials to pilot a particulate pollution market in several Indian cities that use air pollution data to set a cap on pollution, allots firms a quota, and allows them to trade permits as they meet or surpass the quota. This is an efficient way of using data as a guidepost for air pollution policies.