24 Sep 2018 Blogpost Air

Creating a Global Pollution Observatory: Battling big pollution with big data By Erik Solheim


Pollution is among the greatest threats to life and well-being that we face today, and it’s blamed for some 9 million deaths every year. Most of the victims are in the developing world, but there are few people on the planet that are immune from danger.

Dirty air alone causes an estimated six percent global income loss, but for some reason the business-as-usual model is resisting greener and cleaner change. The sad fact is that for too many policymakers, acting against pollution is seen as a cost and a burden.

It’s therefore crucial that we do better to show them precisely how much they are paying for pollution, and build the economic case for action. That means looking more closely at children with asthma or learning difficulties, the early onset of dementia or cognitive abiltities, or simply the time off work due to bronchitis or cancer. That means we need to generate much more accurate data on pollution in any given time and place.

To do so, UN Environment is teaming up with the Global Burden of Disease Project and Boston College to create a Global Pollution Observatory. It will be headquartered in the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at Boston College, in partnership with the Center for Health and the Global Environment in the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

The objective is to build an international team to coordinate, analyze and regularly publish information on all forms of pollution and their effects on health in cities and countries around the world. The data will be credible, carefully curated and open access – and we hope it will guide governments, inform civil society and the media, and assist cities and countries to better target the causes of pollution and save lives.

Pollution impacts are really above all about people. That means monitoring the cases of children with asthma, mapping dementia or chronic lung disease, and more.

Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson on Unsplash

The team will develop, track and analyze metrics on exposure levels, laws, regulations and enforcement, investments in pollution control and green technologies and regulatory structures. Crucially, we’ll also be looking for data on the cost-effectiveness of interventions against pollution, measured in health outcomes and health-related costs averted.

Results will be contained in a Global Pollution Observatory Report, which will make the Observatory’s findings available to students, NGOs and the public. And the first flagship study from this collaboration - expected to be completed by mid-2019 - will be a focus on the burden of air pollution in Indian cities.

It’s a crucial issue and one that many Indian cities are already moving fast on to address. In Mumbai, for example, UN Environment recently signed a funding agreement with the Government of Maharashtra and Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL), a company facilitating energy efficiency projects under India’s Ministry of Power. The electric cars are being provided by Mahindra and Mahindra.

The new Indian state of Telangana, home to the tech hub of Hyderabad, is also making a shift towards e-mobility. On the national level, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also driving a shift away from coal to renewable energy, in particular solar – something that will also deliver major dividends in improving air quality.

Examples from China are also crucial to bring to the rest of the world. Recent years have seen a dramatic decline in air pollution, thanks to tough regulations on industries and the power generation sector. In Pakistan, the environmental protection agency is also installing air quality monitors following a landmark high court ruling which accelerated air quality action.

Data sources are therefore increasing, and our initiative will seek to draw on this myriad of glocal action – including commitments to our #BreatheLife campaign -- to bring some sense to the date. In turn, it will hopefully provide othe cities and nations with clear, actionable intelligence on how to also break free from the shackles of pollution.


For further information on the initiative, please contact our Chief Environmental Economist, Pushpam Kumar.