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The SDC’s Engagement for Clean Air for All

The SDC supports partners around the world in tackling climate change and in improving air quality while reducing poverty, improving health and protecting the environment.
Multiple Authors
Cover photo: Air pollution from open fires and smelters near Bantala, Kolkata, India. Credit: Brett Cole
Cover photo: Air pollution from open fires and smelters near Bantala, Kolkata, India. Credit: Brett Cole


Despite progress in recent years, reducing air pollution continues to pose complex and persistent challenges, and meeting the recently revised World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines will require substantial effort. Committed to accelerating progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the Paris Agreement, the SDC supports partners around the world in tackling climate change and in improving air quality while reducing poverty, improving health and protecting the environment.

This brochure* examines the relevance of clean air policy for development cooperation and summarises SDC’s clean air portfolio in partner countries and regions.

*This weADAPT article is an abridged version of the original brochure, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for research purposes, full references, and to quote text.

Why air pollution is a key issue

Threatening health and sustainable development

As a major threat to health, the climate and the environment, air pollution knows no borders, and improving air quality calls for sustained and coordinated government action at all levels. The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections. In fact, 9 out of 10 people breathe air with air pollutants whose levels exceed WHO guidelines, with low- and middle-income countries most exposed.

The main outdoor pollution sources include fuel combustion from vehicles; heat and power generation; residential energy for cooking, heating and lighting; industrial activities; and agricultural and waste burning.

Hitting vulnerable groups the hardest

Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries, women and vulnerable populations the hardest. Women – and especially pregnant women – who are traditionally responsible for cooking in low- and middle-income countries are particularly exposed to indoor air pollution, as are their children.

Impacting the climate

Air pollution and climate change are so closely linked that addressing one issue can affect the other. They share many of the same causes, in particular the burning of fossil fuels, which accounts for around two thirds of outdoor air pollution. Decarbonising energy, transport and industry is therefore not only key for climate change mitigation but also for improving air quality.

Endangering food security

In addition to their detrimental health effects, air pollutants reduce photosynthesis in plants, disrupting their growth and reducing their resilience to diseases. This not only negatively affects plant biodiversity and forest ecosystems but also threatens global food security by reducing crop yields.

Driving up costs

The economic costs of air pollution are staggering. As the leading environmental risk to health, air pollution cost the world an estimated USD 8.1 trillion in 2019, the equivalent of 6.1% of global GDP. The costs of action have been shown to be far lower than the costs of inaction, with regional and global analyses showing that improving air quality is extremely cost-effective, with benefits exceeding costs in some cases by a factor of 30.

Undercutting the 2030 Agenda

Tackling air pollution is crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Action is necessary across many sectors, and strategies that integrate climate, air quality and development goals are best suited to achieve multiple benefits.

Current SDC support for clean air

Map of SDC engagement on clean air. Map produced by Zoï Environment Network (Right-click and open the image in a new tab to enlarge).

SDC projects and initiatives

Climate and Clean Air Coalition The Coalition advocates for greater action and ambition on reducing short-lived climate pollutants at the global, regional and national levels, brings partners together to identify solutions and to share experiences and best practices, and provides technical assistance to low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Global Alliance on Health and Pollution The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution brings stakeholders together to generate evidence for awareness-raising work and to curb toxic pollution of air, water and soil in low- and middle-income countries in order to reduce the harmful effects on public health.
Clean Air Project India The project supports India in developing scientifically proven source apportionment of particulate matter and other pollutants and therefore enhances the capacities of city and state authorities to implement clean air policies and action plans and to raise awareness of clean air action.
Clean Air China This Sino-Swiss cooperation supports the development of real-time air pollution source apportionment techniques to be implemented in Beijing, Shijiazhuang, Langfang, Xi’an, Wuhan and Chongqing to enable more effective air pollution control policies.
Air Pollution Impact on Health, Mongolia This project supports the reduction of air pollution risks to maternal and child health in the most polluted areas of Ulaanbaatar and one provincial centre.
Climate and Clean Air in Latin American Cities The project works for healthier and more sustainable cities by fostering a shift towards soot-free and low-carbon urban transport and non-road mobile machinery in Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.
Air Quality Management Plan, Cúcuta, Colombia The SDC supports an inter-institutional effort to develop an Air Quality Management Plan for the city of Cúcuta, Colombia, and its metropolitan region.

Suggested Citation:

“The SDC’s engagement for clean air for all,” (2022), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Bern,

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