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Clean Air Catalyst

Air pollution is responsible for more than six million deaths each year, according to a 2017 study in the Lancet, making it the single-largest environmental health risk globally.  

What’s more, nine out of 10 people around the world breathe unhealthy air, the World Health Organization says, and research has linked air pollution with an increased risk of death from Covid-19. Yet there has been very little sustained progress in dealing with this silent killer in the world’s most polluted urban centers. 

The challenge with getting governments to act and holding polluters to account is in presenting the true scope and root causes of the problem, since doing so requires accurate, trusted, localized information. But air quality data can be complex and confusing, and as this 2019 study on air pollution coverage in South and Southeast Asia shows, the news and social media have contributed to a hazy public perception of the threats it poses. 

To improve understanding of the need for clean air solutions in low- and middle-income countries and inform solutions that can reduce air pollution, the Earth Journalism Network has joined a global consortium of organizations led by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to embark on a five-year Clean Air Catalyst program launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  

This flagship program aims to offer a globally applicable approach to developing locally tailored, self-reliant solutions that cut air pollution and improve human health in cities in LMICs. It will work in three initial pilot cities – Indore (India), Jakarta (Indonesia) and Nairobi (Kenya). 

As part of this project, EJN will assess how people in the three pilot areas obtain, consume and act on news and information about air pollution, and how that information influences their perceptions of its root causes and health effects. We will also collect and address common misperceptions about air pollution sources using the rumor tracking methodology developed by Internews. And we’ll provide grants and mentorship to local journalists to develop reporting that addresses gaps and misinformation.  

We’ll train journalists to find and use data on air quality and climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions in their reporting, explore ways to make the causes of pollution more visible and elevate the voices of those most affected by it. 

The project will also build collaborations between the media, scientists and health experts to better explain the drivers of air pollution and produce news stories that will generate a shared understanding of the problem. 

Here’s how it will operate: 

  • Source Awareness: Using participatory science, structured media engagement and assessments of public perceptions around air pollution, the program will work to build a shared understanding of the pollution sources that affect communities in each city. 

  • Root Cause Analysis: We’ll go beyond regulatory solutions by identifying 3-5 activities that drive emissions in the most polluting sectors in each pilot region. 

  • Focused Coalition Building: We’ll then select one of these activities with the potential for high impact and build a coalition of public- and private-sector partners that can work together to reduce emissions. 

  • Cross-Sectoral Global Consortium: Our unique coalition of experts in air quality, environment, public health, energy, governance and communication will work to break down sectoral silos to deliver credible and comprehensive solutions to the problems posed by dirty air. 

As a final outcome, EJN and the other research, health and environmental organizations in the consortium will create a practical, field-tested playbook for tailored solutions that will cut air pollution and improve human health in developing cities around the world. 

We know that the primary sources of air pollution vary from place to place, yet a lack of data on pollutants is compounded by misinformation spread by groups seeking to avoid the costs of reducing harmful particulates and carbon emissions. We also know the media plays a crucial role in building greater public awareness of where pollution comes from so communities can better understand and build support for solutions to this growing problem. 

Banner image: Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash.