Changemakers for the future

Jane Burston, Clean Air Fund

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Jane Burston, Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund.  

‘Change is absolutely within our grasp’ 

It was a super-hot day, and I collapsed from heat exhaustion. I was taking part in the Chicago Marathon, and I had got to mile 25. At the time, I was working a job in London that I had taken for many reasons but not because I thought it was a place I could have the biggest impact in the world. I had my head down trying to do a good job, but it had taken a near-death experience to snap myself out of the situation. As I was being stretchered into the ambulance, I promised myself that if I survived the experience I would really make sure I worked on something I care about 100% and that I would campaign for change on issues close to my heart. As soon as I got home, I quit that job and set up a social enterprise working on making the EU Emissions Trading Scheme more effective.

Turn back the clock even further and I had got it right in the past. Straight out of university, in my first job, I felt my efforts were making a big difference to the public sector in the UK. We did a lot of projects that brought together different governments and authorities to deliver services for the community. We helped digitise just when everybody started getting internet access, and it really streamlined government. Following on from that, I worked for a year in Zambia, for a charity that taught teachers and students how to use computers to get jobs. That was the time I was closest to the impact. I was seeing what difference it made to teachers and students in their daily lives; they could use computers for the first time and improve their job prospects.

Clean air laws and zones
What makes me proud and inspired is seeing all the hard work organisations and individuals that  the Clean Air Fund partners with do on the ground. We work with Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, for instance. Her daughter very tragically died from a severe asthma attack brought on by air pollution. Rosamund has been tirelessly campaigning on air pollution ever since. Very recently the coroner, at the inquest into her daughter Ella’s death, determined air pollution was officially a cause. Rosamund is campaigning for ambitious clean air targets to be brought into UK law, which will, hopefully, make sure no child in the UK ever has to breathe this harmful air ever again.

Alongside supporting those campaigning and pushing for policy change, the Clean Air Fund supports projects that build capacity of countries and cities to deliver clean air. I’m proud that we support the work of an organisation called C40, for example. They work with mayors from big cities around the world, bringing them together to tackle air pollution and share best practices. C40 managed to get 37 mayors to sign up to a declaration to meet World Health Organization guideline limits for air quality, which means they have to make a plan to reduce air pollution in their city.

Change is absolutely within our grasp. The public understands that, too. We’ve commissioned polling around the world, from Nigeria to Poland, the UK to India. Air pollution comes top or next-to-top of people’s health and environmental concerns. They know it’s tackleable because we all saw pollution drop at the beginning of the pandemic when lots of transport and other activity reduced. Now we need to reduce pollution again – but without the terrible losses that the pandemic brought with it.

We’re already seeing examples of how that can happen. For example, in March in the UK, a new clean air zone was launched, which for the city of Bath means fewer polluting trucks coming into the city centre and fewer commercial vehicles. We see in a number of cities, mayors committing to reach World Health Organization guidelines to clean up their air. Lots of people are also taking action in their daily lives to reduce pollution, like walking and cycling more, not using single-use plastics, not burning garden waste or burning fossil fuels in their homes.

Hopes for the future
If I had 10 minutes at the 26th UN Climate Change ConferenceCO26, I would say to world leaders: if you reduce air pollution you can mitigate climate change and save lives. Toxic air kills. It also affects the lives of many millions of people who have diseases brought on or exacerbated by air pollution. Babies and children are more exposed because the pollution is often close to the ground where they’re walking or in their pushchairs. They’re more vulnerable physiologically because they’re growing; air pollution really hampers lung and brain development. These children, like Ella Kissi-Debrah, can’t do anything to clean up the harmful air. But you, world leaders, can. As you fix climate change, you can help all our health, and that will help our economies. You have an opportunity at this conference to make this change happen – please don’t squander that.

My vision is that we achieve clean air as soon as possible so we can have a world where everybody can go outside and play outside whenever they want. Let’s have a world where everybody can travel sustainably and have fulfilling lives unaffected by this scourge of air pollution.

Jane Burston is Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund. Previously she worked as Head of Climate and Energy Science in the UK Government, where she was responsible for the UK greenhouse gas inventory and a £45m science programme. As Head of Energy and Environment at the National Physical Laboratory she managed a team of 150 scientists working in air quality, greenhouse gas measurement and renewable energy.

The Clean Air Fund is a philanthropic foundation that aims to get clean air for everybody. It gives grants to organisations, from grassroots to those supporting policymakers, to further their aims in the clean air movement. The IKEA Foundation is partnering with the Clean Air Fund to improve the health of children and adults by tackling air pollution and accelerating climate action.

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