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Key takeaways and actions from 2023’s Better Air Quality Conference

13 Dec 2023


Last month, Ricardo’s air quality and agriculture and land teams were in Manila, to attend the Better Air Quality (BAQ) 2023 conference, organised by Clean Air Asia, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and Climate & Clean Air Coalition. As the largest air quality conference in Asia with over 700 delegates from 39 countries, an extensive range of stakeholders came together to lay the groundwork for improving air quality across Asia through knowledge sharing, capacity building, and advancing initiatives. 

The event proved to be thought-provoking and inspiring, with delegates flagging a number of influential factors that are key to accelerating improvement of air quality across Asia. Below is a summary of key takeaways to come out of discussions:

1.    Air quality is linked with social progress and is an issue for equity, equality, and economy:

Clean air is a human right that everyone should enjoy, particularly women, children, and marginalised communities who are disproportionately impacted by air pollution. Clean air also aligns with a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2023. Yet there are still globally 7 million deaths per year caused by air pollution due to associated diseases affecting the lungs, heart, and brain. That’s more than the total number of COVID-19 related deaths from its outbreak in December 2019 to November this year, and worryingly, is happening on an annual basis.  

In addition to the health risks associated with air pollution exposure, is the impact on the global economy through reduced labour productivity and costs to national healthcare systems, equivalent to $8.1 trillion per year or 6% reduction in global GDP. This is even higher in Asia at 9% GDP. It is essential that policy makers recognise both the economic and health benefit of air quality management. For example, a conference speaker noted that a 20% PM2.5 concentration reduction is equivalent to 16% increased employment. With such a dramatic impact on worker productivity, it would be illogical to invest in economic growth and not take action to deal with air pollution at the same time.

2.    Innovative financial instruments are required to scale up air quality investments and close the air quality funding gap: 

Despite the potential benefits for health, climate, economy, and biodiversity, only 0.7%1 of international development aid went towards outdoor air quality management between 2017-2021. Many countries across Asia struggle in securing vital financing to accelerate air quality investment. In instances where financing is secured, it is often distributed unequally, with the majority of funds going towards middle income countries in the form of loans. 

Successful financing needs to operate a range of innovative mechanisms to suit specific country and project needs, such as on-lending structures, clean air bonds, green loans, and carbon finance. In addition, climate investment can help to catalyse air quality improvements as climate-focused projects often lead to reductions in both greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions. Therefore, quantifying greenhouse gas emissions reductions in an air pollution-focused project proposal can create further funding opportunities to deliver a wide range of co-benefits. 

Smarter financial mechanisms, increased commitment from development financiers, and urgent action from governments to shift priorities are key in driving air quality investment. ADB was identified by the Clean Air Fund as the second largest investor in improving air quality, partly driven by the activities under the Asia Clean Blue Skies Program which has been delivered by Ricardo over the past 2 years.


Figure 1: Outdoor air quality funding as a share of total international development commitments, 2015-2021. Source: The State of Global Air Quality Funding 2023, Clean Air Fund


3.    Leadership, integration, and communication are essential in developing holistic and impactful solutions:

There is a huge role for effective and engaged leadership to play in reducing exposure to poor air quality. Strong political will and government ownership, both on a local and national level, is vital in accelerating change through formally including air quality targets and effective policies in legal frameworks and implementing robust monitoring systems where data is consistent, validated, and publicly accessible. The BAQ 2023 conference provided an excellent example of engaged, informed leadership, and it was particularly inspiring to see a high proportion of women in leadership positions. 

Solutions need to be holistic and inclusive across borders, sectors, disciplines, and society to ensure effective action. Collaboration between transport, urban development, agriculture, and waste management sectors is key in developing an integrated action plan. Cooperation between key stakeholders – health, policy, finance, climate change, and biodiversity – will not only help to catalyse finance, but it will also drive the greatest health benefit.

Public campaigns and effective communication around air pollution as an issue are also essential for ensuring grassroots public support for investment to improve air quality. Air quality solutions often require behavioural change to be successful but without excellent communication, local sensitivity, incentives, and community willingness, engaging the support and commitment of local communities can be problematic.


What was Ricardo’s role at the BAQ 2023 conference?

In addition to presenting talks and technical papers over the 5 days of the conference, Ricardo’s teams facilitated matchmaking meetings between Asian Development Bank and country delegates from across Asia. This included a roundtable discussion with over 30 delegates from cities across South-East Asia: Manila, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, La Trinidad, Hanoi, Bogor, Pasig, Phnom Penh, Chiang Rai, and Iloilo City. Talks were held on how to progress potential funding opportunities, with delegates discussing their in-country air pollution challenges and potential project solutions focused on transport, clean energy, urban development, and waste management. 

These discussions during BAQ resulted in over 60 potential air quality investment opportunities being identified. As a result, Asian Development Bank, supported by Ricardo and our partners including Clean Air Asia, are looking to prioritise and advance five projects initially under Phase 2 of the Asia Clean Blue Skies Program (ACBSP), with more to come as ACBSP progresses up to 2030.  

The conference was a great opportunity to make connections with partners, clients, and countries which is valuable for both sharing knowledge and increasing the collaborative effort to develop holistic air pollution solutions. The shared dedication and commitment from all BAQ 2023 delegates was inspirational and has set expectations high for impactful, integrated, and innovative air pollution action across Asia.  

Figure 2: The Ricardo team at the BAQ 2023 conference: Keesje Avis, Dr Mark Broomfield, Tom Buckland, Ella Wingard, and Jo Green.

Wingard Ella B&W

Ella Wingard