Photo by Abhishek Choudhary on Unsplash

Elsewhere in India, polluted air reduces life expectancy by up to five years. This is a regional snapshot of a global problem. New research from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London, found that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, meaning that air pollution from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel was responsible for about one in five deaths worldwide.

As Dr Sultan al Jaber, the COP28 President said in a speech at the UN General Assembly Sustainability Goals Summit earlier this year: “Roughly a million lives a year could be saved worldwide by 2050 through air pollution reduction efforts alone.”

COP28 is a pivotal moment for the challenge to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees but it should also be the moment when air pollution is recognised as a public health emergency.

To those not affected by storms, flooding and wildfires, climate change can seem a remote, abstract concept, but air pollution affects everyone and has the potential to have as severe an impact on health as smoking tobacco. According to the World Health Organisation, almost all of the global population (99%) breathe air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, with people in low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest indoor and outdoor exposures. Stopping global warming will take decades but cuts to air pollution will have an immediate impact on health – achieving local alongside global benefits.

COP28 is a pivotal moment for the challenge to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees but it should also be the moment when air pollution is recognised as a public health emergency.

Suzanne Bartington, Clinical Professor in Environmental Health

COP28 will be a unique opportunity to emphasise the danger of air pollution but also to create alliances between government officials, academics, non-governmental bodies and the private sector.

Many of the drivers of air pollution such as the combustion of fossil fuels are also sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Policies to reduce air pollution can offer a win-win strategy for both climate and health, lowering the burden of disease attributable to air pollution, as well as contributing to the mitigation of climate change.

To make sure that we get those win-wins for air quality and health, alongside the decarbonisation targets, we want to harness the knowledge and skills of the delegates and attendees of COP28 and align research with policy and practice.

At the UN General Assembly, Dr Sultan al Jaber spoke about the capacity to collaborate, to overcome differences, and to harness the power of collective action to address climate change. That’s equally true for governmental bodies, academics, non-governmental bodies and the private sector in dealing with air pollution.

Many of the air pollution challenges are complex, involving overlaps between technology, policy and behaviour. To deliver effective solutions, we need expertise across those different domains. In technology, we need engineers who can understand how vehicles, trains and buses are designed and operate but we also need social scientists to understand how people behave and respond to them. How will people behave, for example, with electric vehicle technology? Will they drive their vehicles further, because they are cheaper to use? And will there be unintended consequences?

It is vital to consider the impact of unintended consequences of decision making. For example, diesel was originally conceived as a climate mitigation measure to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles. Unfortunately, it increased nitrogen dioxide emissions, which has created air pollution problems we are still trying to address.

Non-exhaust emissions, which come from brake, tyre and surface road wear are a key emerging risk. While the use of electric vehicles will contribute to a reduction in exhaust emissions, they may increase non-exhaust emissions because of the increased weight of the vehicles and their increased pressure on brakes, tyres and roads. It’s an area we need to research to inform policy making.

Academic research is a powerful tool for policy makers but has to be closely connected to real world problems and solutions. We developed the Air Quality Lifecourse Assessment Tool (AQ-LAT) for assessing the health and economics impacts of air pollution on a range of diseases – including stroke, heart disease, asthma and lung cancer. The tool was co-designed by users in local authorities to ensure that it would be used for developing the business case for air quality interventions.

This is because the last thing that we wanted was an academic solution that would not be feasible in the real world.

At COP28, we hope to see policies that produce real world solutions for the climate and air pollution.