BreatheLife: Global Campaign to Reduce Air Pollution for our Health and Climate

By Climatelinks

What causes 24% of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25% from stroke, 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and 29% from lung cancer? Air pollution. The WHO estimates that 7 million people die prematurely every year due to outdoor and household air pollution. Despite this, air pollution is not well recognized as a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases and is often seen as a problem separate from climate change.

Until recently, the health sector was largely missing from the climate change arena – but this is changing. Doctors, nurses, public health officials, hospitals and health organizations are using their trusted voices to drive change.

At the Bonn Climate Conference on May 3, 2018, Dr. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, World Health Organization (WHO) team lead on climate change and health said, “we have a unique opportunity to get these two things, climate change and health, right if we get air pollution right. The health benefits of climate mitigation will pay for the costs of climate mitigation.”

In 2016, the WHO, United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment), and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition launched the BreatheLife campaign to mobilize cities, regions, and countries to achieve WHO air quality guidelines by 2030. The goal is to save lives, stay below a 2°C average global temperature increase and contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Video: How Air Pollution Impacts Your Body (Click here for video in 5 other languages)

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How air pollution impacts your body. WHO 2018. (For video in other languages visit:

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BreatheLife promotes measures that target short-lived climate pollutants that have both a health and climate impact. As their name implies, short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) live in the atmosphere for a relatively short period of time as compared to carbon dioxide (CO2) – weeks to decades, rather than hundreds of years. Mitigation of these pollutants has near-term benefits for human health, agricultural production and slowing the rate of climate change. Examples include black carbon, a particulate that increases the rate of warming, and methane, a precursor to tropospheric ozone formation and a powerful greenhouse gas. Tropospheric ozone – also an SLCP – impacts the health and productivity of crops, and new studies suggest may cause more public health impacts than previously thought.

Black carbon is a major component of particulate matter (PM2.5), particles small enough to enter directly into the lungs, bloodstream, heart and brain, causing heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), lung cancer, pneumonia and other respiratory infections. Tropospheric ozone increases the incidence of asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses, and may harm childhood lung development. There is a window of opportunity to achieve immediate health benefits, and at the same time avoid the rapid increases in temperature that would occur without prompt action regarding SLCPs, which often also reduce emissions of CO2.
Video: The Walk Home - How Easily Children Can be Confronted with Dangers of Air Pollution on a Walk Home from School (Click here for video in 5 other languages)

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The Walk Home: How Easily Children Can be Confronted with Dangers of Air Pollution on a Walk Home from School (6 languages)

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The director general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom, and the executive director of UN Environment, Erik Solheim, are personally calling for cities, regions and countries to join the BreatheLife Network to showcase their best practices and success in tackling air pollution. City network partners, such as ICLEI- Local Governments for Sustainability and Clean Air Asia, are helping to scale up the effort – along with sports organizations and associations – to learn about the local health impacts from air pollution and implement solutions to improve air quality.

In May 2018, the BreatheLife Challenge was launched to encourage citizens to choose to leave their cars at home and instead walk, bicycle or use public transport for the equivalent of a marathon (42.2 km/26.2 miles). The campaign is designed to motivate and inspire positive action on the part of individuals, cities, regions and countries. With the help of sponsors Pacer and Mobike, the Challenge is on track to achieve its goal of 7 million kilometers replaced, one kilometer for each of the 7 million lives lost to air pollution every year.

By bringing together communications and technical experts at all scales of governance, BreatheLife hopes to provide the political will and scientific evidence needed to unite the health and climate communities, and to make the financial case for mitigation projects that will provide multiple benefits for health, agriculture and climate.
Video: Health & Climate Impacts Explainer (Click here for video in 5 other languages)

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Health & Climate Impacts Explainer

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Related Resources

Adaptation, Energy, Urban
Strategic Objective
Carbon, Emissions, Climate Policy, Clean Energy, Health, Mitigation, Urban



Climatelinks is a global knowledge portal for USAID staff, implementing partners, and the broader community working at the intersection of climate change and international development. The portal curates and archives technical guidance and knowledge related to USAID’s work to help countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

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