Siemens is a founding member of the Alliance for Clean Air - an initiative of international companies that emerged from the World Economic Forum and aims to draw more attention to global air pollution. In the latest episode of the “Moving beyond” podcast, host Prof. Sally Eaves speaks with Jane Burston, Executive Director and founder of the Clean Air Fund, and Eva Scherer, Head of Investor Relations at Siemens.
The dimensions of global air pollution are enormous: 99 percent of the world’s population is regularly exposed to air quality that significantly exceeds the pollutant limits set by the World Health Organization. This has consequences that extend beyond respiratory illnesses: around 25 percent of all heart attacks are already linked to air pollution, due to the inhalation of fine particles that can directly enter the bloodstream. The same applies to a large number of strokes – and researchers have also been able to demonstrate links between air pollution and dementia.
In addition to the health consequences, air pollution is also increasingly becoming an economic problem. It’s estimated that in India alone, there are annual productivity losses of around 95 billion euros due to poor air quality. Yields in agriculture, the solar industry and tourism also suffer massively from high levels of air pollution.
Nevertheless, the phenomenon does not receive the same attention as, for example, climate protection, although according to a survey by the Clean Air Fund, more than two-thirds of all respondents worldwide consider air pollution to be a major or even a very major problem. One possible reason for this: It is often assumed that measures for climate protection are also good for air quality. While the use of fossil fuels is one cause of both phenomena, there are significant differences in the solution. In recent years, for example, diesel engines have put less strain on the climate due to their low consumption, but have led to an increase in respiratory illnesses due to their specific, local NOx emissions. And the combustion of biomass in the fireplace at home is usually climate-neutral, but harmful to health due to the fine dust it produces. Nevertheless, the following applies in many cases: What is good for climate protection is also good for the local air quality. Especially when it comes to reducing the burden of the transport sector – after all, it accounts for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to public transport and replacing diesel trains with battery-powered trains or hydrogen units, such as the Siemens Mireo Plus H, are examples that have a positive impact on both aspects.
The Alliance for Clean Air was founded at the global climate protection conference COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 with the aim of drawing attention to air pollution and how to measure and reduce it. The aim is to work with stakeholders, such as governments and city leaders, to raise awareness of air pollution. It also promotes using one’s own entrepreneurial skills to reduce global air pollution. In addition to Siemens, global companies Accenture, Biden, Bloomberg, Google, GoTo, IKEA, Maersk Mahindra and Wipro are also founding members.
The central focus of the Initiative is to collect data, because there is currently no uniform method for measuring a company’s air pollution footprint. For example, the air quality data stored in various weather apps shows a value for each location but does not take into account the granular nature of the problem: that completely different levels of pollution can exist in two parallel city streets. It’s a phenomenon to which alliance member Google is reacting by equipping the company’s Street View cars with sensors that also measure the air quality of streets and squares with pinpoint accuracy.
In the future, better data could lead to the air quality situation being included in individual route planning, even on a micro level. Eva Scherer, Head of Investor Relations at Siemens, says:
Our Mobility-as-a-Service app could suggest routes with the least amount of air pollution, and thus bring about a change in behavior.
A vision that Jane Burston of the Clean Air Fund shares:
We need more surveillance using inexpensive sensors. Then, for example, children could take the least congested route on their way to school. Studies show that children are exposed to the greatest congestion on their way to school.
And everybody can play their part to reduce air pollution: Switching to public transport is a great personal commitment to improve the air quality. This applies not only for traveling within the city, but also for switching from domestic flights for highspeed trains. And even small things like composting garden waste instead of incinerating can contribute to better air quality.
The aim of the Alliance for Clean Air is ultimately to introduce a system, similar to emissions trading, with a robust methodology for calculating the air quality footprint, and to integrate air quality into the sustainability and ESG reporting framework. It is fitting that the European Commission has now drawn up new standards for corporate environmental reporting. From January 2024, companies reporting under this directive will also have to report on air quality. So it’s also a good time for companies to join the Alliance for Clean Air.