Air pollution is the leading environmental health risk humans face. The combined effects of outdoor and household air pollution cause around 7 million - one in eight - premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, lung disease, and cancers.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) data, air quality in most cities fails to meet WHO guidelines for safe levels, putting people at additional risk of respiratory disease and other health problems. Cities in low- and middle-income countries are the most affected, with some showing pollution levels ten times, or more, above the recommended levels.

Without action, air pollution in many cities will continue to get worse. While more than half of the world’s population lives in cities today, the global urban population is expected to double by 2050. Most of this growth will occur in low and middle-income cities where rapid urbanization is outpacing their ability to provide necessary infrastructure and services.

The Coalition’s Health initiative is working to make urban air pollution an urgent health and development priority. By improving air quality, cities and countries can reduce the health costs from air pollution-related diseases and support sustainable growth. Actions to reduce air pollution can also bring added climate benefits, as many of the air pollution sources are also heavy emitters of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), such as black carbon and methane, as well as carbon dioxide.

A range of affordable technologies, investment strategies and policy options are available to cut air pollution from the biggest sources – including transportation, industry, agriculture and fuel burning for cooking and heating. Solutions for governments, such as land use and spatial planning, clean transport and energy production, energy-efficient buildings, and waste management, also reduce climate emissions, while supporting healthier lifestyles and sustainable urban development.  

Top facts

Over half the world’s population live in urban areas, yet only 12% of cities reporting worldwide achieve WHO guidelines for air pollution.
Globally, 1 in 8 premature deaths are caused by air pollution, amounting to about 7 million premature deaths annually.
By reducing air pollution, cities and countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases for more than 1/2 the world’s population.


What we're doing

The Health Initiative launched pilot projects in Accra, Ghana and Kathmandu, Nepal to provide a model for cities working to improve air quality. In each pilot city, local teams are:

  • Building evidence to enable use of public health tools
  • Using local evidence of health benefits to support SLCP reduction measures
  • Developing local BreatheLife communications campaigns to raise awareness among decision makers, the health sector and general public to about measures to achieve health and climate benefits

The BreatheLife campaign is an ambitious campaign by the World Health Organization, UN Environment and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to dramatically reduce the 7 million deaths annually from air pollution by 2030 and slow the pace of climate change. It unites governments through its network of cities, regions and countries that aspire to reach WHO guidelines for healthier, cleaner air. It empowers the health sector to assess and monitor the costs and impacts of air pollution on people, and to advocate for and contribute to policies for cleaner air. It gives individuals concrete ways to take action against air pollution for better health and climate outcomes.


Over the next five years, the Health Initiative aims to increase public demand for action to reduce SLCPs and other air pollutants. At the same time the initiative is supporting national, city and sub-regional efforts to improve air quality, strengthening capacity of the health sector, and creating health and cost evidence for rapid mitigation action.

The Health initiative is led by a diverse group of state partners, non-state partners and civil society stakeholders that bring different perspectives and expertise. Working through our respective organizations and agencies, we are looking to build on the momentum of existing sustainability initiatives, focusing on our shared interest to protect public health. Traditional practitioners play a particularly important role in reaching high-risk and vulnerable populations.

To support measures that will improve public health immediately and for future generations, the initiative will also work with the Coalition’s sector initiatives - promoting cleaner heavy-duty diesel vehicles, improved management of municipal solid waste, reducing open waste and agricultural burning, cleaner brick production and domestic cookstoves.  


Location of activities

  • Global

Description of activities

Workstream | Health
BreatheLife is a joint campaign led by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Environment and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) to mobilize cities and individuals to protect...


Santiago and other cities of Chile, were the flagship leaders of the BreatheLife campaign, driving development of the global campaign through its local Santiago Respira campaign to promote newer heating systems, improve its mass transit fleet and practice more efficient waste management, combining vigorous policy actions with a strong commitment to raising awareness. 

Since its official launch at Habitat III in October 2016, 36  cities, sub-regions and national governments, representing 33.7  million people, have joined the BreatheLife campaign with official commitments to work towards achieving WHO Air Quality Guidelines by reducing short-lived climate pollutants. These include Santiago, Talca (and the Maule region), Concepcion, Hualqui and Chiguayante (Greater Concepcion area), Chile; Jalisco State, Mexico; Greater Manchester, United Kingdom; and Aburrá Valley, Colombia, Washington DC, United States and the national government of Mongolia. In addition, London, United Kingdom made its announcement on 4 October 2017 and Paris, France has announced that it will join the campaign.

5-year milestones:

  • May, 2015 - World Health Assembly passes Resolution on Air Pollution and Human Health.
  • 2016 - Accra becomes first Health and SLCP mitigation pilot project.
  • BreatheLife social media channels have reached 21 million people in its first year. 

Initiative contacts

Sandra Cavalieri,
Urban Health Initiative Coordinator
Sandra.Cavalieri [at] un.org

Partners & Actors

Lead Partner: A Coalition partner with an active role in coordinating, monitoring and guiding the work of an initiative.

Implementer: A Coalition partner or actor receiving Coalition funds to implement an activity or initiative.

Partners (14)


What are health risks associated with air pollution?

Air pollution is responsible for an estimated 7 million deaths annually, or one in eight premature
deaths every year. This makes it the world’s largest environmental health risk, and among the largest
global health risks – comparable with “traditional” health risks such as smoking, high cholesterol, high
blood sugar and obesity.

Some 4.3 million air pollution-related deaths are due to household air pollution and 3.7 million
deaths are due to outdoor air pollution. Most air pollution-related deaths are from heart disease and
stroke, followed by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acute and chronic respiratory conditions and cancers.

The air pollutant linked most closely to excess death and disease is PM2.5 (particulate matter less
than 2.5 micrometres in diameter), heavily emitted by both diesel vehicles and the combustion of biomass, coal and kerosene. Ozone is another pollutant that causes significant respiratory illness, including chronic asthma. There is growing evidence that oxides of nitrogen (NOx), a major contributor to ozone and heavily emitted by diesel vehicles, is also linked to significant health risks.

What is the link between air pollution and climate?

Black Carbon is a short-lived climate pollutant that is a major component of health-harmful PM2.5 air pollution – particularly from diesel vehicles, diesel engines, coal and biomass stoves and waste incineration. Since black carbon persists for only a short time in the atmosphere, reducing black carbon emissions can have significant near-term climate and health benefits.

Ground-level Ozone is also an SLCP, formed by a mix of air pollutants typically emitted over cities or nearby rural areas, including methane (another SLCP) from urban sewage, waste, and agriculture,as well as NOx from vehicles. Along with being a key factor in respiratory illness, ozone decreases crop yields and contributes to climate change.

Why is it important to take immediate action to reduce short-lived climate pollutants?

By acting now to reduce short-lived climate pollutants that are also air pollutants we will see substantial and immediate gains in public health, saving millions of lives, as well as slowing near-term climate change. The United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization have estimated that reducing SLCP emissions from key sources such as traffic, cookstoves, waste, agriculture and industry could reduce global warming by about 0.5° C (2010-2050).

Public health benefits are enjoyed locally – The largest initial benefits of reductions in short-lived climate and air pollution emissions will be enjoyed by people living in the areas where actions are taken – making measures very attractive to policymakers. Public health benefits of reduced ozone and black carbon emissions may begin to be realized within in a matter of days or weeks through improved air quality.

What groups are most affected by air pollution and its impact?

Air and climate pollutants have their greatest health impacts among the poor – but the poor are not the only victims of air pollution. Reducing household pollution risks from smoky biomass and coal cookstoves, in particular, can help alleviate the burden of poverty-related diseases. Urban air pollution levels also tend to be higher in many low-and middle-income cities and in poor neighbourhoods of high-income cities. This means reductions in SLCPs can have particularly large health benefits for lower income groups as well as for children, elderly, and women.

It is important to remember, however, that urban air pollution disperses very widely. Ozone pollution levels may often be highest on the urban periphery. So rich and poor alike benefit when SLCP emissions, and consequent air pollution, are reduced.

Why is it critical to address SLCPs in urban areas?

Urgent action to tackle air pollution in cities is needed to improve the health and well-being of over half of the world’s population. Only 12% of cities globally meet WHO air quality guidelines, with some cities suffering from pollution levels 2-5 higher than guideline thresholds. The good news is that urban planning, urban transport, building design and waste methane gas capture can reduce urban emissions from traffic, building energy, power systems and municipal sewage/waste.

Strategic changes in urban development priorities may be the most effective means of reducing reduce air and climate pollutants while optimizing health benefits. Cities are suffering from soaring rates of noncommunicable diseases. This is due not only to air pollution, but also to physical inactivity, poor diets, unsafe housing and other urban health inequities. Urban policies that target climate and air pollution emissions, as well as other causes of ill health, can yield multiple benefits. For instance, investing in clean urban transit, pedestrian and bike networks can help reduce traffic injury and support physical activity – as well as reducing SCLPs, air pollution and CO2 emissions. More physical activity, in turn, helps reduce obesity and obesity related-diseases.


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