Ten private companies pledging to reduce air pollution launched the Alliance for Clean Air this Wednesday at the COP 26 summit, but the common shortcomings of industry self-regulation are raising doubts about the alliance’s impact.
“Both the climate and health impacts of air pollution are creating a growing public health emergency which must be addressed,” said World Economic Forum (WEF) president Børge Brende. “Today’s announcement of the Alliance for Clean Air shows an important step from the private sector and shows the importance of cross-sector collaboration in addressing this urgent global issue.”
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But while corporations acknowledging their role in pollution is a welcome development, “we’ve seen too many efforts by big business to greenwash initiatives that result in no real substantive improvements to the environment or human health and well-being,” Canadian Public Health Association Executive Director Ian Culbert told The Mix.
Air pollution is the fourth-leading risk factor for death worldwide and causes seven million deaths each year. In 2019, 92% of the world’s population lived in areas where the concentration of air particulates exceeded World Health Organization standards, says the UN Environment Programme. Despite its devastating public health impacts, air quality is often overlooked by climate policy-makers.
The Alliance aims to address these public health impacts “by devising solutions and providing low-emissions technologies, goods, and services,” stating that “businesses can help rebalance the relationship between humans and nature, and ensure clean air for all.” Among the Alliance’s stated objectives are measures like setting a 12-month deadline to establish air pollution footprints on nitrogen oxides and particulate matter; raising awareness among employees, customers, and communities; and using assets to “innovatively accelerate clear air solutions.”
However, “anytime an industry suggests that self-regulation is a good idea, we need to be skeptical, as the evidence shows that self-regulation by industry does not result in improved health outcomes,” Culbert warned.
Culbert’s concerns are shared by Andrew King, Questrom Professor in Management at Boston University, who pointed out to The Mix that “most self-regulatory programs fail. The very few that succeed have third parties verify conformance, and an effective system for sanctioning those that fail to comply. This program is new, but I do not yet see evidence that these are in place.”
Jorge E. Rivera, professor of strategic management and public policy at George Washington University, noted there is no government involvement in the initiative, which is important for programs like the alliance to succeed. Although government actions often take a long time to establish, self-regulation tends to work better when it complements, rather than substituting for, underlying regulation, he said.
Anjali Helferty, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said she would want to see clearer targets prioritized by the Alliance, noting to The Mix that there are no guarantees the companies’ overall emissions will come down enough as a result of the initiative.
“It would be great to see plans from these companies about how they will drop their emissions annually in line with climate science, immediately, alongside this air pollution commitment,” she said.
Some concrete actions that the Alliance could take include divesting from the fossil fuel sector, making supply chains “greener,” and “using their substantial influence to grow this alliance exponentially,” Culbert said, adding that “there should be thousands of companies participating, not just 10.”
The companies forming the alliance, in partnership with the WEF and the Clean Air Fund, are Accenture, Bloomberg, Biogen, Google, GoTo, IKEA, Maersk, Mahindra Group, Siemens, and Wipro.
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