World Resources Institute

Catalyzing Clean Air: An Open System for Source Attribution

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Project Summary

Air pollution affects health, climate, water, and food security, particularly in the poorest regions of the world. The growing political momentum for clean air, however, stumbles on disagreement and ignorance about how to achieve it. Source attribution (SA), evidence on contributors to local pollution, is often missing, uncertain, and/or poorly communicated. This confusion makes it hard to sustain political support for the changes needed to clean the air. We will eliminate the confusion and build pressure for specific solutions by developing a globally scalable SA system that lowers the costs of established methods; delivers actionable, localized recipes for improving clean air; and empowers those most affected by pollution to identify and demand specific solutions. Our solution will catalyze cleaner air for more than 100 million people in the 16 global south cities we co-create with; more as it removes the bottleneck in other cities around the world

Problem Statement

Air pollution contributes to 7 million premature deaths/year, nearly 90% in low and middle income countries. It damages every organ in the body. Exposure in utero or childhood can have life-long effects. It affects crop yields, water security and climate change. Pollution comes from emissions produced by human activities (including transportation, energy, cooking, agriculture, construction, and industry) as well as biogenic sources (including trees, dust storms). We have the technologies and know-how to reduce emissions. They are generally inexpensive relative to their benefits. Why don’t we use them more often? The reasons vary, but our review of evidence and consultations highlight a common bottleneck: lack of clear, commonly accepted, localized recipes for clean air. Source attribution (SA), an established approach for identifying relevant pollution sources and estimating the benefits from reducing them, is often missing, incomplete, and/or poorly communicated. Without the recipe, those affected by pollution cannot focus pressure for change. Even motivated leaders struggle to deliver clean air. Pollution’s causes vary locally, change over time, and depend on weather. They cannot easily be guessed. Even when the scientific advice exists, it is hard to build the necessary broad coalition for change if the recipe is not widely known or accepted. Reducing emissions imposes costs and polluters are often the first to dispute the recipe and point fingers at other sources. Acceptance of the recipe is also important for showing, detecting, and rewarding progress since it cannot always be judged by visible changes in air quality given complexity of causes.

Solution Overview

We apply established SA methods to create a globally scalable open-science system that will lower the costs of credible, transparenly produced, evidence on locally relevant sources of pollution. We will ensure that it meets policymaker and civil society needs by co-creating and using it with stakeholders in 16 city-regions across Latin America, South Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia. We will establish the technology foundation for global scale and and engage with the global science community to establish the system’s credibility and build a community of contributors and users that will endure and grow beyond the project period.We will know we are making progress if: our system users are able to obtain credible SA at lower costs than traditional SA implementation; the recipes our system produces gain wide acceptance among policymakers and civil society; and policy, regulation, and public investment start to shift in ways that are attributable to the recipes that the SA system produces. The ultimate test of progress will be detectable improvements in air quality in the cities we co-create with. Cleaner air will improve health and quality of life for at least the 66 million people in the 6 cities where we initially engage and potentially >100 million people in the 16 co-creating cities. Our focus on developing a system rather than a series of studies also aims at catalyzing longer run, larger scale impact on air quality, delivering the health, environmental, and climate benefits of cleaner air after the project and beyond the target geographies.

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Project Funders

  • World Resources Institute Core Funding

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