By Jane Burston, Executive Director, Clean Air Fund
Corporate social responsibility strategies, greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, reducing use of single use plastics – there is a lot going on for the average head of sustainability. Air quality is important but so are so many things – why add this new priority into the mix?
Air pollution is called the invisible killer – invisible because you can’t always see it, and invisible because many people are not aware of the extent of its impact. Its impact is huge: outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 million people each year, including almost 300,000 children under five. This is seven percent of all deaths globally – more than the death toll from tuberculosis, HIV/AIDs and malaria combined.
Until recently, very little attention has been given to air pollution, but institutions and governments are now building momentum on the issue: the World Health Organisations says that air pollution represents a public health emergency and countries from China to India to the UK have made tackling it a top priority.
If that is not enough to convince you that now is the time for the private sector to get involved, here are five ways you can tackle air pollution while simultaneously reaping benefits…
1. Be transparent about your impact…
Proliferation of low-cost sensors means that measurements are now in the hands of mums, technology enthusiasts and campaign groups. Expect them to be in your neighbourhood soon.
Volkswagen was the first high profile casualty of much greater attention to air quality data. The result of cheating emissions tests? More than $10 billion in fines and much more in reputational damage. Several other vehicle manufacturers are now under investigation.
You need to understand the impact you are having on air quality, and be transparent about it.
2. …and the impact of your value chain
Indirect operations often account for the largest proportion of a company’s greenhouse gas emissions, in some cases up to 70%; the same is likely to be true about a company’s contribution to air pollution too. About two-thirds of human exposure to outdoor air pollution is from fossil fuel combustion. This means that reducing the need for fossil fuel combustion in your value chain will significantly improve air quality.
Assessing your value chain is therefore essential. This will help you understand where your pollution hotspots are and uncover the associated vulnerabilities, risks and opportunities.
3. Figure out how pollution adversely affects your business, and tell everyone
In many countries, air pollution is seen as a necessary side-effect of development, and improving air quality is pitched against economic growth. In fact, many businesses find that the opposite is true.
Poor air quality costs the global economy trillions, particularly in healthcare and reduced labour productivity. It is predicted that by 2060, there will be 3.8 billion lost working days annually due to the health effects of air pollution.
Clarity about how businesses are adversely affected by air pollution will encourage governments to go further faster, and will help with the public acceptance of new policies. In turn, changes in policy will further reduce risk and enable more businesses to confidently take steps in the right direction.
4. Address the problem, not its effects
Air pollution causes difficulties in the recruitment of senior executives, according to more than half of American businesses responding to a survey by Bain and Company and the American Chamber of Commerce. It is not just difficulties attracting talent, but also retaining it; the brain drain that affected Beijing is now hitting cities in India. One way companies have tried to tackle this is by offering incentives, for example Panasonic and Coca-Cola offer “pollution premiums”, compensation packages to attract and retain talent to countries with higher pollution.
That might work for executives, but employees at all levels are suffering. Showing that your company is tackling the issue at source – either through identifying problems in your own operations or supply chain or by using CSR funds to make a difference – is likely to be motivating for junior and senior staff alike.
5. Incorporate pollution reduction into products and services
It is no secret that sustainable product sales are on the rise. IKEA is no stranger to this trend, having recently seen a doubling in sales of sustainable products over just three years. Now they have innovated a product which reduces air pollution. The FÖRÄNDRING collection, uses straw residue as a raw material to avoid it being burned in the fields to make way for other crops, simultaneously reducing air pollution, and providing farmers with extra income.
Other businesses are also introducing products and services that tackle people’s growing concern about the impact of air pollution on their health and the environment. Google is measuring air quality using its StreetView vehicles; Nokia is developing the potential for smartphones to measure air quality and in some cities Uber has introduced a clean air levy to help fund the transition to electric vehicles.
Jane is the Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund, a philanthropic initiative to tackle air pollution, accelerate decarbonization and improve human health. Previously she worked as Head of Science for climate change and energy in UK central government, and as Head of Energy and Environment at the National Physical Laboratory, where her team of 150 scientists delivered £18m of research and commercial work. Her awards include being named one of the ‘40 under 40 European Young Leaders’ by Friends of Europe and one of the ‘Ten Outstanding Young People of the Year’ by the Junior Chamber of Commerce.