Ricardo Quarterly

Air pollution: a global health emergency

13 Mar 2024

Ninety-nine percent of the world breathes polluted air each day.

The need for action on air pollution has never been more urgent, writes Ricardo's Air Quality & Environment Practice Director, Sean Christiansen.

Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to public health globally and only ranks behind high blood pressure, tobacco use and poor diet in top global causes of death. Every day, ninety-nine percent of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air.  

The most recent World Air Quality Report, based on data from more than 7,000 cities, revealed that only 13 of 131 countries had average levels of particulate matter at or below the World Health Organisation’s safe annual guideline value of 5 µg/m3. The top 20 countries include nations in Africa, the Europe, Middle East and Asia.   

This is having a devastating impact on communities and economies. Seven million people die prematurely every year as a result of conditions such as ischaemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and asthma, all of which are worsened by exposure to polluted air. 

This tragic annual toll of preventable early deaths comes with a huge annual economic cost - estimated at 8 trillion USD, the equivalent of a 6% reduction in global GDP - which is accumulated through the burden on healthcare systems and reduced productivity.

And these costs are experienced disproportionately by women, children, the elderly and low-income families who can’t escape from areas of high air pollution. 

Air pollution: solutions for a global problem 

Solutions are available where there is both the insight and the will to act.

Effective air pollution management requires a combination of high-quality evidence to inform policy development; targeted mitigation interventions; and political support and leadership.

With these elements in place we at Ricardo have been able to work with partners in Europe and worldwide to deliver cost-effective improvements in health and well-being.

We are proud of our flagship air quality management projects supporting the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency, Dubai Municipality, ArRiyadh Development Authority and city authorities in Peru, India, Mongolia, Vietnam, Philippines and Bangladesh. And we are looking forward to building on exciting opportunities in Kuwait, Ho Chi Minh City, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and India, to name but a few.  

Funding for action varies by region. We have established partnerships with international financial institutions and philanthropic global organisations through which we are supporting initiatives to improve air quality in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is actively investing in improving air quality through its Asia Clean Blue Skies Program which we support through various initiatives: clean air action plans for seven cities in Asia; capacity building for dust control at construction sites in Begaluru in India; training and capacity building for pollution control authorities in the, Maldives; field sampling and workshop on control of mining dust in Erdenet, Mongolia; demonstrating the health benefits of public transport investments, Davao, Philippines. 

The November 2023 Better Air Quality event in Manila – the largest air quality conference in Asia – saw more commitments to action from passionate and inspirational leaders across Asia.

Over 60 potential air quality investment opportunities were identified, following which the Asian Development Bank, supported by Ricardo and our partners, including Clean Air Asia, are now being prioritised and advanced. The scale of the Asian Development Bank ambition is impressive, with a commitment to becoming ‘Asia’s Climate Bank’ and invest 100billion USD through to 2030, delivering climate mitigation projects with associated air quality co-benefits.  

What excites me is that we are seeing more opportunities to deliver greater  air quality improvements in the regions where we live and work. Through our expansion into Australia and New Zealand, where our experts are renowned leaders in the water and transport sectors, we are seeing increased opportunity to support public and private sector clients: for example, building on our colleagues’ great reputation with the major mining sector in Australia.

Similarly, our established links with North American automotive industry is helping us to form new alliances – our recent support to the California Air Resources Board on brake and tyre wear being an example of how shared knowledge can help us tackle global air pollution challenges.  

In the same way our experience of design and assessment of waste to energy and biomass facilities in the UK and Europe enables us to give project funders and regulators confidence in investing in well-designed technologies.

This is hugely important as economies around the world transition towards circularity and the minimisation of waste, with all the carbon, resource management and air quality benefits that brings. 

Our trusted air quality consultancy, innovation and digital services 

Why is Ricardo so well placed to bring our expertise to such diverse global markets?

First, we are a truly global business: we have offices in more than 20 countries, across five continents.

Secondly, we have a focus on putting the client first, drawing upon a global network of experts to ensure the best project teams address specific challenges across geographies and disciplines: this is essential for delivering optimised solutions.   

In the case of air quality, we have unrivalled disciplines of evidence – through market-leading measurement and modelling of pollution sources; policy, strategy and regulation; and technology, economic and behaviour change interventions together with their associated costs and benefits. This allows us to model, and then collect evidence of, the impacts of any intervention programmes. 

Our consultancy is underpinned by world-leading, first-of-their kind innovative and digital solutions including: our RapidAir® air pollution software (as deployed in Ho Chi Minh City, for example), our MODUS air quality measurement data management suite (deployed in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and our Air Pollution Emission Scenario Modelling Tool (a system to support UK Government decision makers in developing policy to meet international treaty obligations and UK Clean Air Strategy targets). 


Clean air: a necessity not a luxury 

Air pollution is a social justice issue. Polluted environments and poverty go hand in hand, and the under-privileged, women, the young and the elderly are those who are at most risk from the health, or even premature mortality impacts, associated with exposure to air pollution.

This means that clean air is not a luxury – it’s a basic human right. At Ricardo, we are committed to working towards a cleaner world, supporting informed, bold, action that demonstrates leadership in tackling air pollution and saving lives.  


Tackling air pollution for over 60 years

Ricardo has the longest-established specialist air quality team in the world and, with over two hundred experts, we are the largest and longest established air pollution consultancy in Europe. We proudly trace our heritage to work in the UK that followed the infamous London smogs of the 1950s, which were found to be responsible for at least 12,000 deaths. These smogs led to UK government action through far-reaching air pollution controls and the seminal UK Clean Air Act of 1956. Over the last 60 years our experts have continued to provide trusted advice, helping governments, city authorities and businesses across the globe to understand and manage air pollution. 


Air quality and environment
Rapidair Modelling


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