By: Christa Hasenkopf, Nishka Sharma, Farah Kazi, Polash Mukerjee, and Michael Greenstone

Fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) is the greatest external threat to public health with the average person on the planet losing more than 2 years of life expectancy according to the Air Quality Life Index, with the loss even higher at 3.1 years outside of OECD countries.

Why is reliable air quality monitoring so important for addressing air pollution? The history of progress on air pollution in countries including 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. Thus, our theory of change is that closing air quality data gaps can allow people to lead healthier and longer lives.

The report outlines:

  • Why closing air quality data gaps is a key catalytic step
    for reducing the most human health-harming outdoor
    air pollutant, PM2.5. (Section 1);
  • The countries with the largest opportunities for a small,
    well-supported effort to effect positive national-level
    changes by closing data gaps, (Section 2);
  • The local actors who are well-poised to close these gaps
    (Section 3); and
  • Four guiding tenets for philanthropies on how to inject
    more resources into the space in a maximally effective
    way (Section 4).

Section 1 spells out the theory of change for how closing PM2.5 data gaps can create the foundation for—and in some cases directly spur—reductions in PM2.5 levels by sharing examples in countries across the world.

In Section 2, we identify 46 countries where there are especially high opportunities for relatively small investments to support local actors in building the necessary data infrastructure to advance policy that reduces PM2.5 pollution. 838 million citizens in these 46 high opportunity countries
breathe air with PM2.5 levels that are 4 times higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline. Sixty-one percent of high opportunity countries are located in Africa, 22 percent in Asia, 15 percent in Latin America, and 2 percent in Europe. Meanwhile, across all of these countries, there are a total of only 30 government-run PM2.5 monitors. In comparison, the country of Finland, one of the few countries that already meets the WHO guideline for PM2.5, has more monitors for its population whose size is 1/152ndth of those 46 countries. Seventy-four percent of these high opportunity countries receive less than 100,000 USD annually from international donors to address outdoor air pollution (100,000 USD is a rough threshold for the amount needed to sustainably run a single government-grade PM2.5 monitor each year). In fact, the combined total outdoor air pollution funds from international donors known to be received annually by these 34 countries is less than 73,000 USD.

Section 3 analyzes a landscape of 75 local actors working on closing PM2.5 data gaps within their country and share the results of 26 in-depth interviews to identify challenges and opportunities, and spotlights several local efforts globally. The most frequently cited amount of funding that local actors would find meaningful to their work was 50,000-100,000 USD per year. As a point of comparison, the entire African continent currently receives less than 300,000 USD in philanthropic funding annually for addressing outdoor air pollution.

Section 4 puts these geographical and local actor analyses together from a funder’s perspective. It finds that a 4 to 8 million USD annual injection of funding could make substantial progress in closing country-level PM2.5 data gaps across the world. It also finds that if even one effort in one small country were to catalyze clean air action that modestly lowered their national annual PM2.5 levels, the avoided health damages in that one country alone would offset the cost of that annual global injection of funding. Section 4 also provides four guiding tenets for entities interested in funding in this space.

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