Standing up for the clean air we deserve!

By Mahamadou Tounkara, Director, Strategy, Partnerships and Communications, Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI)

Air pollution has become the number one environmental problem affecting people’s health, impacting 300 million children worldwide and contributing to the premature death of 600 thousand children every year. Indoor air pollution from cooking on open fire using firewood or charcoal is a major problem in many developing countries. In Ethiopia, for example, biomass fuel, used by 95% of the population for cooking, is responsible for 50,320 annual deaths of children under-five year, accounting for 4.9% of the national burden of disease in Ethiopia. Acute respiratory infections are the leading cause of mortality among children in Ethiopia.

Air pollution has been getting worse in recent years. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to public health and 9 out of 10 people in the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Traffic is a contributor to bad air quality, but another factor is “brown” electricity generation. Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity releases dangerous pollution that contributes to poor air quality and health issues. Green growth can minimize air pollution through investment in areas such as cleaner forms of energy generation and transport, better management of traffic congestion, adoption of cleaner manufacturing, agricultural and construction practices, and clean cooking.

GGGI and its work

At GGGI, we work directly with governments to tackle the growing concern of air pollution, as it has become the largest cause of premature death in many nations. GGGI has 32 Member countries and works across the thematic priorities of sustainable energy, green cities, sustainable landscapes and water and sanitation to deliver impact through six strategic outcomes which are aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In addition, GGGI’s 70 projects contribute to all of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

GGGI’s country examples

GGGI’s Mexico team has developed a tool to measure and quantify health effects on transport-related air pollution and supported the government of Mexico in the creation of a governance system, involving Mexico City and five other surrounding states to help improve air quality in the central region of the country. Three-wheelers are an important form of public transport in Vientiane, Laos, but it is also the biggest source of air pollution. The three-wheeler project has been replaced by an e-bus and an e-motorbike project, as the government wants to phase out the three-wheelers. A growing number of countries are shifting its perspective to focus on basic public services that need to be more sustainable, inclusive and now, more emphasis is placed on helping to improve the quality of life for the citizens.

Electric tricycles (e-trikes) have already started to roam the streets of San Vicente, Philippines. GGGI provided technical assistance to San Vicente and the implementation of e-trikes will not only mitigate the effects of climate change, but also create jobs and improve mobility of its residents, without the pollution and noise. GGGI is also working with the governments of Jordan and local and international partners and stakeholders to help the Jordan achieve its goals of reaching 14% greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2030, improving urban air quality, and catalyzing electric mobility to improve the country’s energy efficiency and reduce its dependence on oil imports.


Nepal launched its National Action Plan for Electric Mobility, developed by the Government of Nepal and GGGI in 2018. GGGI’s Nepal team has been working closely with the Ministry of Forests and Environment since 2017 to advance clean, sustainable transportation and support the Government to get electric buses on the road. Peru is in the process of modernizing its vehicle fleet and eliminating the vehicles that pollute the most. GGGI’s Peru team is currently supporting the Ministry of Transport and Communications in the design of its freight vehicle scrapping program.

Air pollution in Asia

In the last few decades, there has been incredible economic growth in Asia, during which the environment took a back seat, but now people are confronting air pollution and other impacts and so the mindset is changing. In the Republic of Korea, the Moon Jae-in government has changed its perspective on energy policy and has increased its renewable energy target from 4% to 20% and this has led to a lot of societal discussion in the Republic of Korea. The United Kingdom started such a discussion 10 years ago, when it had close to 50% of its energy coming from coal but in 10 years it has gone down to almost zero. People were worried about energy security but now wind energy has become cheaper than coal and building wind turbines has generated a lot of jobs. A rapid transition took place in 10 years.

In Asia, the primary driver for green or clean tech may not be climate change but air pollution, which causes asthma and kills people all over Asia. Beijing had more blue skies this year than in previous years, as coal mines have been closed and more electric buses are on the roads. China has become a leader in certain areas of clean technology and is commercially exploiting these opportunities, for example in constructing solar panels. In Europe, wind energy provides a thriving industry and many commercial opportunities. Japan is pushing for a hydrogen economy, and various countries are finding out that these could bring a new generation of prosperity

At the opening ceremony of the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing, President Xi Jinping gave a remarkable speech on China’s commitment to multilateralism, opening up the country’s economy, breaking down subsidies and tariffs, and promoting high quality green development in the interest of peace and prosperity across the world. At GGGI we are exploring how that commitment can translate in acceleration of renewable energy uptake in developing countries, using Chinese expertise and technology.

Air pollution is virtually everywhere in Asia in the big cities because of transport, coal-fired power plants and industry. Even in less-developed rural areas where you don’t expect the level to be as high. Eighty percent of people in Cambodia are still cooking food on an open fire and using coal for heating and as a result, indoor air pollution is a huge problem for them. Pollution is the largest cause of premature death now, even more than smoking. It is something that worries us a lot and plays a large part in green growth.

Air pollution is the second-largest cause of premature deaths for children in Mongolia. But there is also cause for alarm in countries where it is not as clearly visible and people are not so aware of the problem. Inefficient energy use in households, industry, agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants were the major sources attributed to outdoor air pollution, while the lack of access to clean cooking fuels and technologies contributed most to indoor pollution. The latter puts women and children as the biggest group at risk. As a result, two-thirds of Southeast Asian cities saw a five percent growth in air pollution between 2008 and 2013 according to a WHO report in 2016. However, the report noted that more governments were increasing their commitments to reduce air pollution.

Small individual decisions such as walking, using bicycles, opting for public transport or sharing car trips have significant impact, and go hand in hand with ambitious public policy decisions. The world needs to take action and commitment to get the clean air we want to breathe in our bicentennial.