Data for action to address air pollution

Posted April 11, 2022
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No country is spared the cost of air pollution, but the heaviest burden is in low- and middle-income countries.

Photo: UNDP Mongolia

World Health Day 2022 aims to focus global attention on the connection between human health and that of the planet. New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that almost the entire global population (99 percent) breathes air that exceeds WHO air pollution limits and threatens their health. Ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution now cause around 7 million premature deaths every year, or 13 deaths every minute.  

Air pollution takes its toll in other ways as well. It costs the world an estimated US$8 billion per day when factoring the economic losses associated with poor health. Associated environmental damage includes reduced crop survival, water and soil contamination and climate change. Air pollution is also exacerbating COVID-19, leading to increased disease severity and excess mortality.  

No country is spared the cost of air pollution, but the heaviest burden is in low- and middle-income countries. A major barrier for action has been the lack of data on air quality. For example, the 2021 World Air Quality Report shows that only 13 of 54 countries in Africa have sufficient public air quality data. There has also been insufficient attention to the cost of inaction, including productivity losses, healthcare expenditures, and premature mortality. Indoor air pollution caused by traditional cookstoves using firewood deprives women and girls of time, education and economic opportunities.  

As part of efforts to safeguard the health of people and planet, UNDP, the European Commission and Research Triangle Institute International (RTI) are collaborating with countries to tackle air pollution by ensuring decision makers have access to better data. UNDP and RTI have developed innovative methodologies to calculate the costs of indoor and outdoor air pollution, including in settings where gaps in air quality data persist. In the absence of local air quality monitors, these methods can approximate outdoor air quality through combining satellite data with national health data from ministries of health or data from the Global Burden of Disease database. 

UNDP and RTI have piloted these methodologies in Nigeria, where average outdoor air pollution exposure in 2019 ranked second highest in Africa and fifth highest globally, and where traditional cookstove use remains common. According to the analysis, the health impacts of outdoor air pollution, which include approximately 82,000 deaths each year, are costing Nigeria over $13 billion in economic losses annually. Meanwhile, indoor air pollution is costing Nigeria $2.9 billion in yearly economic losses. In addition, use of traditional cookstoves in Nigeria causes 120 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually and is responsible for the loss of 1.2 million trees, with environmental harms valued at $6.5 billion.

In line with its Strategic Plan (2022-2025) and HIV and Health Strategy (2022–2025): Connecting the Dots, UNDP is building on the Nigeria experience to develop investment case methods to advance whole-of-society action on pollution in Ethiopia, India and Mongolia. This includes supporting countries in planning, financing and multi-sectoral coordination, as well as strengthening engagement of political leaders, parliamentarians and civil society.

World Health Day is about advocacy and action to reverse policies and practices that have harmed our health and pushed our planet to the brink. It is about advancing recoveries from COVID-19 that are founded on health, equity and well-being, and that build a cleaner and greener future. Understanding and acting on the full costs of air pollution is critical to these efforts. UNDP will continue working with partners to advance transformative solutions to safeguard the health of the planet and people. 

"New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that almost the entire global population (99 percent) breathes air that exceeds WHO air pollution limits and threatens their health."