Ninety-nine per cent of the world’s population breathes air that is harmful to their health. With proven links between the climate emergency and air pollution, collective action across industries and sectors is needed to accelerate innovative solutions and address both crises. 

Recognizing this critical need, the World Economic Forum (WEF) convened a diverse group of experts in its 54th Annual Meeting at Davos-Klosters, to delve into this challenge. In true WEF fashion, the session was an open forum moderated by Melissa C. Lott, Senior Director of Research at the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, with panellists, Peter BenHur Nyeko, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Mandulis Energy, Jane Burston, Chief Executive Officer, Clean Air Fund, Benjamin Von Wong, Artist Activist Temuulen Enkhbat, Vice-Curator, Ulaanbaatar Hub and Ma Jun, Director, Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs sharing insights they have gathered across industries and sectors, needed to accelerate innovative solutions ensuring everyone can breathe clean air.

Lott who has been researching global energy policy for the past two decades kicked off the conversation by debunking the general view that air pollution has to be greenhouse gasses. “Greenhouse gases are one form of air pollution that affects our health through the impact of climate change. Other types of air pollution are shortening our lives and impacting our quality of life,” she said. However, “what makes me optimistic is that we have solutions. In most cases, solving one kind of air pollution, such as greenhouses, often helps with other kinds of air pollution as well.” She then leads the conversation by posing some crucial questions, “How do we engage people? How do we motivate action? And how do we speed up things to achieve the speed and scale we need when talking about solving climate change?”

It starts with the grassroots

Temuulen Enkhbat, who has a background in working with communities and grassroots to find uncommon solutions that affect Mongolia, said that engaging the community members in the process of finding innovative solutions is crucial, as they are the beneficiaries of these innovations. “When I work with local community members, I want to make sure that I am there to listen to their challenges and the context they provide, to make sure the solution works on the ground,” she said. Enkhbat added that this is also important because there are usually many interrelated problems, including energy and infrastructure. Peter BenHur Nyeko, who has focused on the rural farming community in Uganda for the past ten years, agreed with this and believes innovation is the way to overcome them. “We can find ways of using what is available in a community to help them realize what they lack,” he said.

Innovation from a broader perspective

When we look at innovation, especially in the area of climate resilience and energy, we need to consider the whole picture of energy, not just electricity or heating fuel. Nyeko illustrates this point with his experience working with an agricultural community. “Farmers produce either crops or other products and usually these bring waste. We think about how we can upcycle the waste material in a way that delivers what the inputs are, be it fertilizer, electricity, or cooking fuel for the family or commercial. That is how we look at it,” Nyeko said.

Nyeko’s company, Mandulis Energy, combines biomass gasification of dried agricultural waste and aerobic digestion of wet agricultural waste with solar power to make the most of the flat spaces available. They provide very low-cost electricity, heating fuel, cooking fuel, biochar, and biofertilizer. “With that whole ecosystem, it is possible to make it commercial while at the same time making it impactful. No one loses, everyone gains,” he added.

Even the largest entities can benefit from this system. The by-products that come out of the system can be used by large industries. For instance, concrete makers can use biochar to decarbonize and reduce the use of sand, while households can use pallets to replace firewood and charcoal. Other industries can use the low-cost electricity available to bring production closer to the source of agriculture, which reduces the need for transportation. When waste is not left to rot, methane does not go into the air, and people do not burn it. “There is a way to always use innovation to solve every problem and do so in a way that keeps everyone happy and full of hope for a brighter future,” said Nyeko.

Challenges revolve around apathy 

Apathy is the lack of interest or concern, or a puzzling or deplorable inertness or lack of passion. It is a state of mind where people believe that nothing they do can make a difference. Visual artist and activist Benjamin Von Wong pointed out that this was a significant challenge in fighting social issues like air pollution. The visual artist creates large-scale installations around different social issues. He showed the audience one of his installations, a picture of a man pathing what looked like the sea. The installation was made out of 168,000 straws, collected over nine months, and holds a Guinness world record. “Most of the work that I do is how do you take an issue that people don’t necessarily want to talk about and make it inviting enough to be part of the conversation,” said Wong.

Wong, who believes that art provides a visual language, a tool that anyone can relate to, pointed out that it is still just one piece of the puzzle that serves the wider movement. He added that the one thing many people get wrong in the climate movement is framing the entire issue as a win-lose scenario. By 2030, if we don’t hit this climate goal, we are doomed. “I don’t believe that there is a single person in the room who believes we are going to meet those goals. That means we are training an entire generation that believes that no matter how hard they fight, they are not going to win. They might win a war here and there, but they will lose the battle. Yes, we are driving off the cliff, but how do we soften the fall? ” he said. “I think there is so much possibility in that conversation. If everyone can get enough hope that it is possible, they can get engaged.”

How do we move from apathy to action?

Jane Burston, who works with diverse groups tackling environmental challenges, identifies four crucial elements that spark change: art, data, stories, and community engagement. “It’s a four-pronged dance,” she stressed. Burston vividly recalled one of the amazing art projects, a pair of lungs made of filter paper that is normally used in air pollution monitors. It had a vacuum behind it, sucking the dust pollution to the surface of the lungs. On a billboard poster in London, over a few weeks, or a few days when it was done in Lucknow in India, the lungs turned black before your eyes. And people could see that this was what they were breathing. “Art like that makes the issue visible,” she said.

The second force, Burston pointed out is data, which is often underutilized. “It exists,” she said. “But it is not regularly used. There is real-time monitoring if you go look in the right place on the government website you will find it. But it is not super engaging.” She suggested that citizen science could offer a way to make data collection more accessible and interactive. Today, there are handheld air pollution monitors that anyone can use. For example, if you are walking your kids to school and you want to know which route has the least pollution, you can measure it yourself. “The sensors are good enough to tell you that,” Burston explained. Burston’s eyes sparkled as she described a project that involved Lagos, Cape Town, and Accra. Youth groups, equipped with these sensors, became mappers of pollution, tracing its hidden paths and documenting its sources. “These youth groups take the sensors and travel around the town, mapping out the air pollution at the granular level and also taking photos of the source of that air pollution. They can report it to the government and advocate for the solution they want to see,” she said.

The third element needed for change to happen is stories. “It is very compelling to hear how pollution is affecting people and their health,” said Burston. We work with a lot of parent groups and individuals. She talked about a lady called Baverain Kanderan whose two daughters have asthma and another, Rosemond Kisi Debra, whose little girl tragically died of air pollution. Debra’s daughter is the first person in the world who has air pollution written on her death certificate seeing that her death was due to a severe asthma attack brought on by traffic congestion near her house. “These parents are telling their own stories so this doesn’t happen to other families all over the world and using these stories to advocate policy change,” Buston chimed. 

The final element, Burston emphasized, is community. Policy becomes a fragile bird, struggling to take flight without their voice. “If climate policy is not well done, there can be a backlash,” she noted. She points out that excluding community groups from the policy-making process could lead to unintended harm or unaffordable solutions for some groups. To emphasize her point, she told the audience about the Mehala Housing Trust in India, a non-profit that works with female construction workers exposed to dust pollution and other environmental hazards. In Dehli, the government bans big vehicles from entering the city and shuts down construction sites when pollution exceeds a certain level. However, this means that these women lose their income on those days, even though they are not the main source of pollution. The Trust became their advocate, their voice to the government. They organized workshops, shared stories, and achieved two remarkable outcomes. The women learned that they were eligible for a social payment, and the government, moved by their plight, brought healthcare directly to their work sites through an initiative called doctors-on-wheel. “That’s one powerful way to use stories for policy change,” said Burston.

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