Everybody deserves the right to breathe clean air. Yet air pollution is choking cities and communities around the world: a staggering 9 in 10 people breathe unhealthy air.

City leaders urgently need to identify and accelerate solutions across the world. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), WRI and the Environmental Defense Fund are launching a bold new initiative, Clean Air Catalyst, to help cities around the world reduce air pollution by advancing solutions that protect health, promote equitable prosperity and tackle the climate crisis. Through a global consortium of organizations, Clean Air Catalyst has begun work in two pilot cities: Indore, India, and Jakarta, Indonesia.


Screenshot of a Clean Air Catalyst webinar, featuring Jessica Seddon and Karl Fickenscher
Clean Air Catalyst is a growing cooperative to help cities around the world reduce air pollution. 

Improving Health for Vulnerable Communities

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez and USAID Acting Assistant Administrator Karl Fickenscher spoke at the launch of the program, as well as representatives from partners and Indore and Jakarta. Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health – causing more than 6 million premature deaths each year. “80% of these deaths are in low and middle-income countries,” said Fickenscher, representing the USAID Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation, “and the current trends could result in a staggering 10 million deaths per year by 2050.”

Poor air quality affects nearly every organ in the body and increases risk of heart and lung diseases, including asthma. Children, older people and low-income communities often experience the worst outcomes.

Clean Air Catalyst will work with communities as well as governments and the private sector to develop local solutions that protect people’s health.

“This is a matter of public health, of equity and of environmental justice,” said Senator Menendez. “The Clean Air Catalyst is a vital global flagship program that will build upon the knowledge and expertise of the United States to work with communities on the frontlines in developing and sustaining progress toward cleaner and healthier air.”

Senator Robert Menendez speaking at the Clean Air Catalyst launch

“The City as Collaborator”

The Clean Air Catalyst program will initially work in Indore and Jakarta, two cities that suffer from poor air quality and have unique challenges. 

Indore has made great strides over the past several years to become a cleaner, more sustainable city. As Asad Warsi, sustainability advisor for the Indore Municipal Corporation, noted, “Now is the time to focus on improving air quality.” He stressed the importance of raising awareness as a starting point.

Yulia, policy manager in the Jakarta City Government, said a few years ago “Jakarta realized it had a real problem.” But to solve the air pollution problem, she also noted the importance of working together and getting citizens involved. “The government cannot do it alone – we are a city of collaborations. We want to move from the city as provider to the city as collaborator to achieve a common goal.”

Understanding Local Sources

“As scientists, a key pillar of our work is to focus on source awareness and source attribution,” said Rebecca Garland, principal researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria, South Africa. “Working with local experts and officials we’ll use a variety of approaches to develop air quality modeling and update the emissions inventory, which is a database of pollution sources.” Garland is a steering committee member for Clean Air Catalyst partner, MAP-AQ.

The main drivers of pollution differ from place to place and even time of year and day, Yulia said. “We have to know first what the sources are,” she said. By pinpointing which activities are causing pollution and collaborating with multiple sectors across society, city leaders can identify better solutions that lead to sustained progress on cleaner air and have the biggest health benefits. 

For example, in Jakarta, “we found a difference in air pollution sources between the wet and dry seasons – but transportation remains the primary sector for air pollution,” said Yulia. Warsi said transport is also a significant contributor in Indore, and the city is taking action to address the problem. “We have moved to EVs in a big way,” he said, “in public transport and private.”

Climate Benefits

“We also know that many of the same pollutants that degrade air quality around the world also contribute to the existential threat of our time: climate change,” said Senator Menendez. 

Climate change can also intensify the impacts of air pollution and vice versa. For example, extreme heat can cause an air mass to hover over the same area for several days, preventing air pollution from clearing out.

By approaching solutions through the lens of both air quality and climate, tackling one problem can address the other. 

“The good news is that our actions can make a difference,” said Senator Menedez. “Reducing air pollution could avoid an estimated .6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050, slow the pace of arctic warming and help alleviate urban heat islands.”

Local clean air solutions can improve public health and lessen climate change impacts, but the complexity of the challenge has stalled action in many places. “Solving this crisis will require global leadership and global action,” said Fickenscher. “We need cooperation and partnerships at all levels.”

Clean Air Catalyst will work with cities to better understand their specific air pollution challenges, so we can identify and accelerate targeted solutions to reduce pollution and improve people’s quality of life.  


About WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities is World Resources Institute’s program dedicated to shaping a future where cities work better for everyone. It enables more connected, compact and coordinated cities. The Center expands the transport and urban development expertise of the EMBARQ network to catalyze innovative solutions in other sectors, including air quality, water, buildings, land use and energy. It combines the research excellence of WRI with two decades of on-the-ground impact through a network of more than 350 experts working from Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Turkey and the United States to make cities around the world better places to live. More information at www.wrirosscities.org.