Countries from the global south take the most action to improve air quality in their climate plans, while some of the world’s biggest carbon-emitting economies lack that vision, concludes a recent assessment of air pollution measures in national climate commitments.
The Clean Air NDC Scorecard ranks [pdf] countries for reflecting air quality in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), their official pledges under the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. Countries can achieve a maximum of 15 points, determined by the NDC’s attention to five categories: health impacts, air pollution, source sectors, economics and finance, and “bonus points.” Countries may have other national air quality plans outside their NDCs, but those are not included in the scorecard.
Of the 170 NDCs analyzed by the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA), 14 of the 15 top scorers were low- or middle-income countries like Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Togo—with Chile as the one high-income country.
Among G20 countries, Canada and China led the way in integrating air quality in their national climate plans, while the low scorers are Australia, Brazil, the EuropeanUnion, India, and COP 28 hosts the United Arab Emirates.
Fossil fuel combustion is a major source of air pollution, linked to severe public health outcomes like heart and lung disease, cancer, and higher infant mortality. Statistics cited in the scorecard show that air pollution causes 6.7 to seven million deaths each year.
“The Clean Air NDC Scorecard confirms the human cost of delaying the inevitable phaseout of fossil fuels,” said GCHA policy lead Jess Beagley. That makes it crucial for major global polluters among the G20 to embed air quality considerations into their NDCs, but none of them scored even half marks—indicating their failure to link the climate crisis to air quality and to show appropriate ambition and action.
“It is also telling that the countries seeking to take the greatest action on air pollution are often those bearing the brunt of the impacts,” Beagley added.
By far the majority (164) of the NDCs referred to air quality to some extent, but for most countries there was a disconnect between those mentions and action to prevent air pollution mortality. Fewer than a third of the NDCs referred to the health impacts of air pollution.
The two highest-ranked countries, Colombia and Mali, scored 12 points each, but the global average score was just 3.5. High-income countries overall scored an average of 2.9 points, while G20 countries averaged 3.3 points. The top 10 global emitters—China, the United States, India, the EU, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—scored an average 2.7 points, with Saudi Arabia receiving 0.
While financial considerations are critical to ensure that policies are implemented as intended, only 17 NDCs mentioned economics and financial measures like costs, budgets, or returns on investments linked to air quality. Only 20 received bonus points for recognizing inequalities and vulnerable populations, mentioning the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, or quantifying health gains.
The GCHA concluded that there is “considerable scope for improvement” in air quality ambitions, even among the high scorers. Governments can make a strong case for air quality investments by highlighting the health gains of cleaner air, the alliance notes. And countries must tailor air pollution action to the needs of the most vulnerable populations.
The GCHA also recommends that governments act to curtail the fossil fuel industry by ending subsidies and by restricting advertising campaigns for their products.
“Responding to the scorecard isn’t merely about trying to improve a country’s ranking,” said Beagley. “It’s about how we both imagine and seize upon the opportunity of delivering a future where the health impacts of burning fossil fuels no longer exist.”