6 October 2022

Clean Air: Are Funders Missing a Golden Opportunity?

Terms like “win-win” and “game-changers” get thrown around with increasing ease, but tackling air pollution really does live up to the label.

Toxic air is a universal health problem – 99% of the world’s population breathes air that breaches the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. Babies, children, older people and those with existing health conditions are most severely affected, and disadvantaged communities bear the brunt too. For example, a study found that children from deprived backgrounds and communities of colour in London breathe in more harmful air at their primary schools than other children. And this inequality exists at a global level: An estimated 90% of deaths caused by air pollution are in low- and middle-income countries.

As well as being a public health emergency, air pollution is closely linked with climate change. They share many of the same causes: Dangerous levels of both greenhouse gases and air pollutants is mainly due to burning fossil fuels. Air pollution and climate change also share many of the same solutions, from swapping fossil fuel-based power for renewables, to cutting industrial emissions or reducing emissions from agriculture.

Are funders missing a transformative opportunity?

While the challenges of addressing air pollution are significant, the potential unleashed by cleaning the air we breathe is nothing short of transformational. For funders looking to deliver impacts across some of society’s biggest challenges – including climate, health and social equity – cleaning up our air can be the silver bullet they are looking for. But is this pressing global problem still overlooked by philanthropy?

As Clean Air Fund’s new research on global air quality funding shows, philanthropic foundations spent $63.8 million on tackling air pollution in 2021. This was a welcome increase on the year before, though still a relatively small sum compared to the size of the challenge. The increase was mainly driven by a small number of large grants. Overall, the number of foundations providing grants to air quality projects doubled between 2015 and 2021 (from 23 to 47) and the number of grantees grew to an all-time high in 2021. This year-on-year growth indicates an increased interest in air quality from big foundations and a shift in funding practices. It also demonstrates that the air quality field can absorb significantly more funding, with expert organisations poised to produce game-changing results if they receive the support they need.

Our research also shows that there has been a significant step up of major funding commitment to large scale, multi-disciplinary projects. These “big bets” suggest increased levels of commitment from some foundations and illustrate the ability of air quality grantees to coordinate complex pieces of work across multiple strategies and stakeholders.

But significant gaps and missed opportunities remain

Despite welcome increases in the scale and sophistication of funding, our research shows that air pollution projects accounted for less than 0.1% of global philanthropic foundation funding, and just 0.5% of total international development funding, between 2015 and 2020. Given the damage we know air pollution does to our health, economies and environment, there is no sound financial or political argument for this underinvestment. Philanthropy has a golden opportunity to make a difference by tackling air pollution in its own right and drawing links with funding in other focus areas, such as early childhood development, climate mitigation, health, social equity or any number of areas philanthropy already works in.

Also, the bulk of air quality funding is concentrated in the US, China and India, and funding lags behind in Africa, Latin America and the rest of Asia, where air quality is showing deteriorating trends. With a combined population of 3.9 billion people, these three regions account for half of the global population in 2021. Yet, they only attracted a combined 3.7% of total foundation funding to air quality in the same year.

Philanthropic foundations are uniquely placed to pilot and innovate, acting as a stimulus to build the case for larger investment from institutional funders and governments. There is also an opportunity for greater collaboration among funders to tackle these intersectional challenges by pooling funds, and sharing knowledge and expertise to help ensure maximum impact. Examples highlighted in the report include the Instituto Clima e Sociedade’s cross-sectoral partnerships which strengthened clean air legislation and built public awareness in Brazil, through to Impact on Urban Health’s work with urban design experts to produce evidence-based toolkits to improve air quality around schools in London.

Because it underlies so many other challenges, air pollution might seem like a secondary issue. But by investing in clean air, funders can deliver for climate change, sustainable development, public health, early childhood development and equity, paying for itself many times over. But we must be quick. In too many places, air quality is still getting worse, and the numbers of people who suffer severe illness or die because of poor air quality grows every year.

The Clean Air Fund is a global philanthropic organisation that works with governments, funders, businesses and campaigners to create a future where everyone breathes clean air. Our State of Global Air Quality Funding report provides an authoritative overview of funding flowing to projects that tackle air pollution between 2015 and 2021 from international development funders and philanthropic foundations. Find out more: www.cleanairfund.org


Jane Burston
Founder and Executive Director, Clean Air Fund