11 Feb 2020 Story Air

What’s in the air? World Urban Forum 2020 launches world’s largest real-time air quality databank

Globally, over 4,2 million premature deaths per year can be attributed to outdoor air pollution, with the majority occurring in lower- and middle-income countries. The World Bank estimates that air pollution exacts an annual toll of US$5 trillion in health and welfare costs and US$225 billion in lost income. That is about equal to the gross domestic product of Japan, the third richest country in the world.

The exposure to polluted air seems almost impossible to escape. According to the World Health Organization 9 out of 10 people—92 per cent—breathe air that exceed safe limits. The most affected by toxic air are those living in cities in low- to middle-income countries.

Indoor air pollution takes a particularly heavy toll on women and young children, as they are most likely to stay indoors for longer periods of time, where they are exposed to the fumes from cooking and heating. In less developed countries, 98 per cent of children under five breathe toxic air. As a result, air pollution is the main cause of death for children under the age of 15, killing 600,000 of them every year.

The necessity to act is more urgent than ever, but to act, policymakers and citizens need more specific data to support their decisions. To fill this gap, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in partnership with UN-Habitat and IQAir—a Swiss air quality technology company—have come together to develop the largest real-time air quality databank, bundling real-time air quality data for particulate matter (PM2.5) from thousands of initiatives run by citizens, communities, governments and the private sector. The interactive air quality platform was launched at the tenth session of the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, in February 2020.

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Air quality data gap in Africa. World's air pollution: Real-time, official data (based on United States Environment Protection Agency air quality scale)

The platform also allows for individuals to collect data—an approach with a double benefit: a larger amount of individual measurements and a greater public awareness of air quality. In fact, existing pollutant information is often not readily available to the public—an important stakeholder for mitigating health and environmental impacts of air pollution.

With millions of users accessing the platform, both individuals and government institutions can use real-time air quality measurements to track local pollution levels, receive customized health recommendation—via the platform or a mobile app—and view commitments to improve air quality from cities around the world.

The platform currently receives real-time data from more than 4,000 providers (including governments) and has a following of more than 15 million users.

“Providing real-time data in a simple-to-understand format at this scale is an important step UNEP is taking to fill the data gap,” says Sean Khan, a UNEP expert on air and global environment monitoring systems.

“We expect this dataset to grow following the launch and use cases of successes and contributions to the platform to inspire replication. Already, the city authorities of Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Kampala have connected their sensor systems to the platform transforming the continent with just 50 publicly accessible data sources for PM2.5 to more than 80. This is encouraging,” he adds.

With 68 per cent of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, planned urban development and green policy actions have become a major pillar in mitigating the effects of air quality on human health and the environment.  

 

For more information, please contact Sean Khan (sean.khan@un.org).