A Win for Clean Air and Social Justice at the UN Climate Talks

Air pollution is killing hundreds of thousands of children a year and is a growing public disaster for health, development, and climate change. Government partners of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition want to change that.

This post was co-written by Akriti Sharma, Climate Change Policy Assistant at Oxfam America. It first appeared on the Oxfam America website here.

Like most people living in America, I often take clean air for granted. The unconscious rhythm of breathing in and out is hardly ever challenging, but that is not the experience for billions around the world.

A few weeks ago, UNICEF published a report with a staggering headline: 300 million children currently live in areas around the world where the air they breathe is literally toxic. Let that sink in for a second. That’s four times the number of children in the US and one in seven worldwide. In some cases, children are breathing in the equivalent of 40 cigarettes each day.

To say this is a social injustice is an understatement. Children have no say in their national politics or laws and yet their lives are being fundamentally altered by air pollution. And even though the UNICEF report notes that air pollution is heavily concentrated in the regions of South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, it is not an issue absent in the rest of the world.

Air pollution is directly linked to numerous respiratory ailments including asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as cancer, making it the world’s biggest environmental health risk, and claiming the lives of some 600,000 children under the age of 5 every year. It is also an incredible drag on national economies. If people are sick and can’t go to work or school, governments are jeopardizing both their current and future economic prosperity. For example, in India’s capital, Delhi, where smog levels have reached a record high, over 4 million children in the capital city missed three days of school in just one week as their government made a decision to close institutions to reduce children’s exposure to outdoor air.

Fortunately, countries are starting to prioritize addressing air pollution as a means to realize multiple development benefits, as well as address climate change. As one example, last week, on the sidelines of the UN climate change negotiations in Marrakech, Morocco, country partners of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) put forward a Communiqué committing to take steps to reduce air pollution. These include:

  • Reducing black carbon emissions through cleaner diesel fuels and vehicles. Diesel fuel powers approximately 85 percent of road transportation worldwide, producing black carbon – or soot – a potent air pollutant. Diesel fuels with high-sulfur content are particularly dirty, and while most developed countries have regulations requiring the use of low-sulfur diesel and have put in place vehicle emission standards, many developing countries have not. Rising populations and more diesel vehicles therefore lead to poorer quality air, but this does not have to be the case. The CCAC recently released a global strategy for transitioning every country to low-sulfur fuels. By adopting complimentary emissions standards, countries can achieve economic benefits while also preventing an estimated 100,000 premature deaths per year by 2030.
  • Reducing methane emissions from oil and gas operations. As the largest source of industrial methane—a global warming super-pollutant—leaks throughout oil and gas systems threaten to undermine climate objectives, as well as negatively impact public health, crop yields, and efforts to provide energy access. Fortunately, capturing wasted methane makes economic and environmental sense and the solutions are typically straightforward once leaks are identified. CCAC partners from both developed and developing countries pledged to undertake strategies and implement policies to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. In fact, some countries have already gone further by setting quantitative targets: for example, Canada, Mexico, and the US agreed in June to reduce oil and gas methane by 40-45 percent by 2025 from 2012 levels.


Addressing air pollution is a no-brainer for governments looking to achieve both climate change objectives and the Sustainable Development Goals. Solutions are generally available and cost-effective, but it does require the political will of governments to put people before profit. CCAC partner governments have taken an important first step toward a healthier, more prosperous, and more just world. For the sake of all children, let’s hope other countries follow suit and follow through.