Global governments must address air pollution

Cllr Jonathan Elmer highlights the contradictory policies of global governments, which fund fossil fuels alongside air pollution projects. If we are to address the issue properly, he says, we must cease the funding of fossil fuels altogether.

Air pollution
Jonathan Elmer

According to a recent report by the Clean Air Fund, air pollution kills more than malaria, HIV/Aids and TB combined. In spite of this, these areas receive vastly more funding than air pollution, which only receives one per cent of development aid.

The absurdity of the situation becomes even more apparent when we consider the fact that governments actually spend more overseas aid money on programmes that enable the exploitation of fossil fuels, which, of course, appears at the root of most air pollution problems. In fact, according to a CAF report, governments give 20 per cent more overseas aid funding to fossil fuel projects than they do to programmes that address air pollution. 

Yes, you read that correctly – governments are funding projects that create pollution, whilst simultaneously funding programmes that address the very same pollution. Why, then, is the issue of air pollution being collectively overlooked by the governments of wealthy countries?

Perhaps the reason for our collective denial of this brutal reality is the sheer scale of the problem. Consider the causes – most air pollution comes from energy production and use. It comes from the burning of coal to generate energy and heat homes, from the combustion of oil distillates such as petrol, diesel and aviation fuel to power vehicles. The combustion of fossil fuels releases particulates, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur oxides, all of which have a direct impact on our respiratory health. Fossil fuel combustion also contributes to global warming, which further exacerbates the impacts of air pollution on health.

Many countries have introduced air quality legislation over the last hundred years, and this has had a beneficial effect. However, these improvements have been outpaced by industrialisation, and so air pollution continues to get worse. So, in a nutshell, there is an unspoken recognition across the world that programmes addressing air pollution are something of a sticking plaster if we are unable to address the underlying cause.

As with the climate crisis, addressing air pollution requires that global society stop using fossil fuels, and stop quickly. It’s a truly global problem and the only effective solution is for global society to wean itself off fossil fuel. A good start would be for wealthy nations to cancel all funding programmes that enable fossil fuel exploitation. 

Taking the UK as an example, a study by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development showed that from 2010 to 2017 the UK provided £7.8bn in financial support to support overseas energy projects, with 60 per cent of this funding being allocated to fossil fuel projects. What we see here is the UK’s diplomatic and aid services working in direct conflict with its stated intentions to address the climate crisis. In particular, the UK is promoting energy infrastructure development that locks developing countries into a form of energy generation that pollutes the air and emits carbon.

The UK has recently increased its carbon reduction targets, pledging to reach net-zero by 2050. It professes to be a climate leader on the global stage, yet peer beneath the official narrative and it’s very clearly business as usual.  

What the UK needs is a genuine transformation of doing business with regard to our trade deals and developmental aid, such that these practices are viewed as methods to leverage carbon reduction and the proliferation of non-polluting energy infrastructure. The UK still has considerable influence on the global stage, and it’s time we used this influence to address these existential environmental crises, rather than to capitalise on fossil fuel returns.  

Let’s hope that COP26 helps shine a light on these contradictions so that the UK can become a real climate leader in action as well as words.