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Clearing the Air: How open-source air quality data can save lives and repair the climate

Trees lining the middle of a motorway
Expert Advisor to The Earthshot Prize and Engagement Analyst at TransitionZero

Despite clean air being a public good, access to reliable information needed to make significant changes is lacking at a global level.

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is the greatest environmental risk to human health, with at least 4.2 million people dying from outdoor air pollution-related causes each year.

Currently, only half of the world’s governments track air quality, of which only 40% have real-time data available to the public. This means that approximately 5.6 billion people around the world have very limited or no access to meaningful information about the quality of the air they breathe.

As most pollutants in our air come from heavy industry, power and heat generation, vehicles, agriculture and waste management, it is challenging for individual citizens to fully take control of their air.

For instance, coal power plants are a major source of air pollution, but their emissions data is not publicly accessible in many countries. This means that the true social and environmental cost of coal generation is often underestimated – a very relevant consideration in the discussion to retire coal plants early. Without open data, the full value, as well as past and future impacts of polluters, cannot be transparently assessed.

What we need instead is for local, national and regional organizations and governments to work together to make easily available, unrestricted and transparent data the standard practice, especially as it relates to the sources and levels of air pollutants in their areas.

Open data is important in research development, which should inform evidence-based public health and environmental policies. Open access to accurate air quality measurements accelerates the creation of freely available research tools and models. One such example is The Health Effects Institute, who use open data to estimate risks to health caused by exposure to air pollution from a variety of different sources, including vehicle emissions and industrial pollutants.

While a range of community-based tracking efforts, such as OpenAQ and Clarity, have worked hard in recent years to increase the availability of open-access air quality data, these are still limited. We need to supercharge our data collection and build a transparent approach to funding and maintaining air quality networks around the world.

Addressing the climate crisis necessitates urgent, coordinated and strategic action by countries, communities, and corporations. Open data that is standardized, up-to-date, and well publicized is essential if we are to tackle the difficult questions around energy transition.

Isabella Suarez, TransitionZero

Access to data is one thing; the ability to analyze the data, crunch numbers and deliver useful insights lends it further importance. That’s why solutions built by groups like TransitionZero and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, showcasing the power and importance of open data in informing policy and investment, are timely and crucial.

Find out more about TransitionZero and their flagship open-source electricity system model generator, the Future Energy Outlook, at


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