New real-time air pollution exposure calculator boosts quality of air quality monitoring

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in collaboration with IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company, has developed the first real-time air pollution exposure calculator, which builds on the world’s largest air quality data platform, launched by UNEP and IQ Air in February 2020.

The calculator, developed with support from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN) and the Frontier Technologies Hub, combines global governmental, crowd-sourced and satellite-derived air quality data with population data and applies artificial intelligence to calculate – every one hour –  country population exposure to air pollution, specifically to the fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that is largely responsible for deaths and illnesses linked to air pollution. 

The real-time air pollution exposure calculation is displayed as part of the global interactive air quality map on UNEP’s World Environmental Situation Room in an intuitive live data box that specifies the exposure level per age group across the world’s population. This information is designed to prioritize efforts to improve air quality monitoring and help catalyse actions to improve air quality in urban spaces. UNEP plans to enhance the calculator to support cities around the world to improve their air quality.

More than 80 percent of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO guideline limits, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures, both indoors and outdoors. Air pollution not only affects public health, it also affects ecosystems and food production, and is also linked to climate change. Despite this, most citizens don’t have access to real-time air quality data and many urban spaces around the world lack sufficient air monitoring systems. Consequently, citizens are often unaware of the harmful levels of air they breathe.

“With nine in ten people on earth breathing unclean air, this real-time air pollution exposure calculator is an important step in our efforts to utilize technology to support cleaner air and, in turn, improved health and a healthier environment,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “The imperative to act is urgent – we must continue to increase international cooperation on air quality data and research, develop new technologies and, crucially, work to reduce air pollution, especially for those most at risk.”

“We recognize that some of the world’s most vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by poor air quality,” said IQAir CEO Frank Hammes.

“Through our partnership with UNEP and the support of UNSDSN and UKAid, we are able to leverage real-time air quality monitoring data, machine learning and data visualization to help identify those that are most affected by global air pollution. The real-time visibility of the impact of air pollution on mankind, combined with the outreach and support that the UNEP offers, can help governments and communities around the world take actions that lead to cleaner, healthier air.”

By rapidly and dynamically assessing real-time exposure to poor air quality, this unique collaboration between the UN, the private sector, academia, non-governmental and local governments could help accelerate efforts to change how transport, waste management and other services are managed in cities so that air pollution from these activities is significantly reduced, and ultimately eliminated.

The launch of the real-time air pollution exposure calculator comes as the world celebrates the 2nd International Day for Clean Air and blue skies on 7 September, this year under the theme ‘Healthy Air, Healthy Planet’. The Day calls for increased international cooperation at the global, regional and sub-regional levels. It provides a platform for strengthening global solidarity as well as political momentum for action against air pollution and climate change, including the increased collection of air quality data, carrying out joint research, developing new technologies and sharing best practices.