Leaders from nearly every country attended the World Health Organization’s (WHO) inaugural Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health in Geneva last week, along with academics and nongovernmental organizations, but there were no corporate leaders in attendance. The absence of companies suggests that air pollution isn’t front and center on business leaders’ radars. Here are three reasons why it should be.
Poor air quality poses a risk to employee health, too, which can lead to more sick days—air pollution in central London, for example, has been shown to cause the equivalent of over 650,000 sick days each year.
Furthermore, cities that have severe air pollution problems will increasingly be seen as less desirable places to work and live, thereby negatively impacting talent recruitment. A survey released by Bain & Co. and the American Chamber of Commerce in China found that 53 percent of American firms operating in Chinese cities have experienced difficulty in recruiting senior talent, with the majority blaming air pollution.
Pollution can also affect profits: a Yale study found that Spanish consumers spend nearly $50 million less on days when ozone pollution is just 10 percent worse than usual.
Human rights advocates traced sweatshop abuses to apparel brands using old-fashioned sleuthing. These days, technology for sensing air pollution is more available to citizens, cities and companies—and new innovations come to market almost daily. Open-source data analytics is also democratizing insights.
Local hotspots can already be detected using these technological advancements, and soon the health and economic impacts from air pollution will be traced to fleets and specific locations.
This means taking action now to better understand a company’s air pollution footprint can give that business a competitive edge in accelerating solutions (we need to measure before we can manage). The good news is that hyperlocal air pollution insights already being collected in places like Oakland, Houston and London can have myriad benefits. For example, block-to-block information on air quality could inform where electric vehicles would provide the greatest return on investment for health and the climate.
A common problem I hear from businesses that have set climate targets is that many find it hard to know exactly what to do once the ink dries on a commitment. They're often left wondering how to secure resources and people for action, and how to show impact—especially after the low-hanging fruit such as energy efficiency in company-owned facilities is picked.
Seeing as many sources that contribute to climate change are also sources of air pollution (transportation, building operations, etc.), targeting health and climate co-benefits together is a way to set priorities, build support and momentum, and demonstrate impact faster. Investing in solutions to address air pollution would also help the climate—and who in business doesn’t love a two-for-one deal?
In the end, do you want to be the business that found growth opportunities in protecting people and the planet? Or do you want to be left holding the dirty ashtray?
Image credit: Holger Link via Unsplash
Aileen Nowlan leads EDF’s work to identify, accelerate, and scale transformative environmental technologies. Aileen began with an innovative collaboration to minimize methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry through continuous detection of leaks. This collaboration dramatically accelerated the pace and improved the quality of deployed solutions. Aileen is applying this successful model to air pollution, chemicals exposure, and other health and environmental challenges.