Energy makes the world go round. The importance of its availability and accessibility cannot be underestimated; it sustains life as we know it. Yet despite our dependence on it, many of its sources are having catastrophic effects on our climate.
Over 80% of the world’s energy comes from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Burning these non-renewable fuels releases large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Indeed fossil fuel use produces nearly three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions, edging us ever closer to the 1.5 degree tipping point of warming that would have calamitous consequences for the planet.
This is why the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions and building and maintaining the pathway to get there, is so crucial. Supporting a just transition and ensuring access to reliable and clean energy is vital, as captured in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 Affordable and Clean energy. Whether it be wind, solar or hydro, expanding and investing in renewable energy is at the core of tackling the climate crisis.
But climate catastrophe is not the only reason to accelerate our transition to renewable energy. Addressing air pollution is another. As well as producing CO2, burning fossil fuels is responsible for 85% of particulate matter, and nearly 100% of sulphur and nitrogen dioxide emitted globally. These pollutants cause around a quarter of adult deaths from stroke and heart disease, a third from lung cancer, and two fifths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Burning dirty sources of energy is not just terrible for our planet, it also wreaks havoc on people’s health. Every year an estimated 7 million people die prematurely as a result of toxic air.
Since the causes of climate change and air pollution are largely the same, the solutions can also be the same. So it is crucial that they are tackled together. Failing to do so risks addressing one at the expense of the other. It was this kind of siloed policy-making that led to governments encouraging the switch from petrol to diesel vehicles which reduced CO2 emissions but also increased levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx), a group of toxic air pollutants. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even the most ambitious climate action won’t bring air quality in line with the World Health Organization’s recommended safety guidelines.
It is true that we need a renewable revolution to reach net zero. But more than that, we need a renewable revolution that reaches net zero in a way that actively prioritises people’s health. Clean Air Fund’s recent Joined-Up Action on Air Pollution and Climate Change briefing paper found that – when policy makers factor in the wider savings on healthcare, economic productivity and inequality reduction from tackling air pollution when choosing climate policies – bolder, faster action towards net zero can be economically justified. For example, when considering these wider savings in cost-benefit analyses, offshore wind and solar become a positive return on investment. In short, Governments are missing obvious wins for health, economic efficiency and social justice by not prioritising air quality action alongside solutions to climate change.
While energy makes the world go round, so does money. And funding from philanthropic sources has the power to accelerate systemic change and support equitable solutions. With flexibility over funding priorities, and the ability to take bigger risks than other types of funders, foundations can model what is possible so that others have the courage to follow suit.
The Drive Electric Campaign is a fantastic example of this. Tasked with driving ambition to reach 100% clean transport by 2050, the campaign is powered by philanthropy, with a long list of foundation partners supporting it. Since 2019, Drive Electric has already contributed to 72 major policy developments worldwide and secured commitments for 100% electric vehicles by 2050 from governments and business that represent 19% of the world’s road transport demand. Through their work, Drive Electric are disrupting the assumption that electrification is too difficult to achieve. They are showing another future is possible.
Philanthropic foundations also have the potential to engage effectively with the private sector, a vital part of developing the renewable revolution. Through our partnership with the World Economic Forum, we launched the first global corporate Alliance for Clean Air at COP26 with 10 multinational companies committed to measure and reduce air pollution in their operations and value chain. By placing clean air at the heart of their climate action, companies can make sure that not only are they reducing their dependency on power sources that warm the planet, but also on power sources that harms the health of people. Through the Alliance, these companies are providing an example to the rest of the private sector that the transition to renewable energy must not just be a clean one, but also a healthy one.
As we approach the G20 and COP27, the opportunities for Foundations to display leadership on some of the world’s most pressing challenges has never been greater. Foundations can work with governments to realise the obvious wins for health, economic efficiency and social justice by tackling air pollution and climate change in tandem, especially within a zero carbon agenda. To meet the commitment of a healthier, more resilient, and sustainable economy, tackling air pollution is vital to get back on track and meet global climate targets and the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
The Clean Air Fund works around the world with governments, funders, businesses and campaigners to deliver clean air for all as fast as possible.