Air pollution report

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▲ Photo by Kristen Morith on Unsplash

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This is an executive summary of our investigation into air pollution

Read the full report

Air pollution is the fifth largest risk factor for mortality globally, causing the deaths of nearly 7 million people every year. It is an issue worldwide, with 99% of the world’s population living in areas above WHO air quality guidelines. It is especially acute in low and middle income countries, where over 90% of deaths occur. In addition to the immediate mortality cost, air pollution potentially worsens cognition and mental health, with an economic cost of 3% lost global GDP.

Air pollution remains highly neglected, with $64 million spent in 2021 by foundations to tackle the issue directly - less than 0.1% of total foundation funding. Only $9.58 is given by foundations for every air pollution death - nearly 8x less than HIV/AIDs. This disparity is more extreme in low and middle income countries, where only 3.6% - or $2.36 million - is spent across Africa, Latin America and Asia (outside India and China) by private foundations. Air pollution funding therefore remains highly distorted relative to where the problem is worst.

Air pollution is a highly complex topic, with thousands of potential interventions to pursue in different cities, tackling different sources, all through different approaches. To prioritise within this complexity, we identify various impact multipliers. This approach can multiply the impact of an air pollution dollar by several orders of magnitude.

We recommend that individuals and foundations interested in reducing air pollution should:

  1. Focus on urban areas, and in areas where pollution is most deadly.

  2. Focus where populations are growing and air pollution is worsening.

  3. Focus on the largest, most affectable sources of PM2.5.

  4. Focus on the regions and sources where intervention are most politically feasible.

  5. Focus on the least funded regions and sources.

  6. Focus on policy, especially at the stage most appropriate for a country’s development.

In practice, this means a focus on air quality monitoring and source-specific policy advocacy in South East Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America - neglected regions where emissions are set to grow.

About the author


Tom Barnes

Applied Researcher

Tom joined Founders Pledge in September 2021 as a Junior Researcher. He studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Warwick, getting involved with the Effective Altruism university group. After graduating in July 2021, he interned with Rethink Priorities, researching various longtermist causes.

Outside of EA, he enjoys philosophy chats, maps and cats.