human silhouette against busy city traffic

The critical importance of air quality—and requiring corporate action

Noorie Rajvanshi, Director of Sustainability and Climate Strategy, Siemens USA

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in December 2021 on Human Rights Day to address the universal importance of clean air. Efforts to ensure air quality—and the right to breath clean air—continue to be a major priority as we head into Climate Week 2022. Also, since this piece was first published, Siemens Mobility has successfully completed the sale of Yunex Traffic to Atlantia S.p.A.

Over the past two+ years, throughout the pandemic, we’ve heard a lot of conversations about air quality as we started to learn more about how COVID spreads. Unfortunately, the outdoor air quality improvements were short lived, and as the world is getting back to near-normal conditions, so is the pollution.

 

Air pollution has long been termed a silent killer, responsible for around 7 million deaths worldwide according to World Health Organization (WHO). Over 25% of these deaths occur in Southeast Asia, including India, where I grew up. In India, air pollution, especially in large cities, is very visible. Just last week, the air quality index (AQI) in India’s capital city, New Delhi, passed 400 mark—for reference, AQI between 0-50 is considered good and 50-100 satisfactory.

 

Worldwide, air pollutants disproportionately impact the most vulnerable communities. Elderly people and children suffer greater impacts of airborne pollutants that cause chronic respiratory illness and underserved communities are more often located near the sources of pollution. According to the American Lung Association, recent studies have found that those who live in predominately African American communities suffered greater risk of premature death from particle pollution than those who live in communities that are predominately white. And according to Global Citizen, 130,000 Americans die from the effects of air pollution and millions more are sickened or disabled.

Worldwide, air pollutants disproportionately impact the most vulnerable communities. Elderly people and children suffer greater impacts of airborne pollutants that cause chronic respiratory illness and underserved communities are more often located near the sources of pollution. Recent studies have found that those who live in predominately African American communities suffered greater risk of premature death from particle pollution than those who live in communities that are predominately white. 

Now, as we look to Climate Week 2022, it’s important we remember that access to clean air is a fundamental human right. As individuals, we have the right to demand our local governments provide us information on the air we breathe and enact policies and programs to improve air around us. And as a global corporation, we at Siemens can do more - we can use the technologies and solutions we have right now to inform the public and improve the air quality for all in the United States. 

 

In November 2021, at COP26, the World Economic Forum launched the Alliance for Clean Air in partnership with the Clean Air Fund. Siemens is proud to be one of the founding members and has committed to using technology with purpose to help reduce air pollution and create healthier communities.

 

Our participation in the Alliance for Clean Air is about bringing the conversation about air pollution to the center stage, creating actionable plans to improve and quality, and using technologies and innovations to accelerate improvements in air quality.

 

In September 2021, WHO published their new air quality guidelines, which is the first update since 2005. The guidelines, though not legally binding, provide local regulators and policy makers tools to set their own rules and recommend more stringent limits on six main pollutants: carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, lead, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide.

 

In the United States, federal agencies have mandated acceptable limits for pollutants in the air put out by industry, and the burden of air quality improvement has typically fallen on state and local governments—particularly cities tasked with improving the lives of citizens, many times with public private partnerships.

 

Now is the time for private companies to take on some of this ownership. Many have expertise, technology and media horsepower to contribute, they’re a part of these communities and have a responsibility to support the local governments. For example, at Siemens, we have the technologies to enact change and have a strong footprint across the country with more than 40,000 employees serving customers in all 50 states. Through internal education alone, we’re able to spread the message of air quality broader than a single city.

 

There are many different strategies that cities can take to reduce air pollutants, and we’re starting to see some unique ways they are tackling this around the world. For example, London is the first city in the world to create an Ultra Low Emission Zone that limits entry to vehicles of a certain category checked by license plates. In just over a year, the city has seen significant improvements in air quality and made a decision to expand the zone to cover the entire city. This program can be replicated in different forms based on resources and goals. In New York City a proposed congestion pricing plan will implement a pricing scheme for all vehicles traveling into Manhattan’s central district, which will encourage the use of public transport, walking or biking and avoid traffic gridlocks and resulting air pollution.

 

While air pollutants in the United States are declining—in parts due to strong regulations and transition to electric mobility and renewable electricity—we are not completely out of the woods yet. We saw the wildfires on the West Coast bringing smoke all the way to New York City over the summer, and we continue to witness the disproportionate effects of air pollutants in underserved and underrepresented communities. At Siemens, we’re supporting the cities and communities where we live and work with technologies to improve air quality, but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. With support from initiatives like the Alliance for Clean Air, I’m encouraged that we can all work together so that this silent killer is no longer ignored.

 

For more on Siemens’ climate action initiatives and solutions, visit: Transforming the everyday to create a better tomorrow

Published: December 10, 2021; Updated: August 29, 2022