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Covid-19 is a global disaster, but air pollution and climate change are planetary existential crises

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Ian Lester is the founder and chief executive officer of Beyond Wireless Technologies, a South African Internet-of-Things (IoT) company that supplies pharmaceutical and biological cold chain monitoring solutions.

While the world focuses on defeating Covid-19, we cannot lose sight of the fact that air pollution is statistically twice as deadly as the pandemic has been.

According to the World Health Organisation, pollution causes seven million premature deaths globally each year – in the last 12 months, Covid-19 has claimed around 3.5 million lives. This in no way downplays the impact of Covid-19. Instead, it highlights the critical importance of addressing pollution and the resultant rapid degradation of our air quality as an equally urgent public health crisis. 

Pollutants are directly impacting our health while at the same time accelerating climate change. 

Harmful pollutants are not only emitted by heavy industry and the use of fossil fuels – everyday activities such as the burning of wood, paraffin and plastic in dense low-income settlements are also extremely problematic. Sadly, without viable alternatives, the use of these raw materials for heating and cooking will continue unabated.  

Air quality is not only an environmental issue – it is a global health crisis that could dwarf the Covid-19 pandemic in our lifetimes if not urgently addressed.

Some of the immediate consequences of air pollution are heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory disease. The other, and far more dire macro-level impact is climate change, increasing the severity and frequency of wildfires, floods, droughts and famine, the consequence of which will be human suffering of biblical proportions – climate change is a potential extinction event and it is happening right now. 

Ironically it is the less industrialised, low-income countries that will be worst affected. It is sobering that, despite having contributed the least to global warming, the world’s poorest nations will be the most affected due to a lack of sufficient resources to adapt to climate change. 

Safe air is our right

The solutions to addressing the problem are complex, expensive and require global political and economic will. As with all problems, meaningful interventions start with identification, acknowledgment and measurement. Air quality needs to be monitored and communicated in a way that is both accessible and meaningful to the public. Only by demystifying air quality and making it as common as the daily weather report, will we begin to solve the problem. 

It’s simple – knowledge equals accountability and accountability equals action. 

Accurate, reliable street-level air quality data will empower citizens to hold government, industry and ourselves accountable. After all, we have the right to an environment that is not harmful to our health and we have an individual responsibility to make it happen.  

The Internet of Things (IoT) combined with Moore’s Law means we can now remotely monitor more things in more places at a dramatically lower price than ever before, increasing both access to and resolution of data. 

At Beyond we have active deployments in over 70 developing nations where our technology is used to track the temperature of vaccines for the likes of Unicef, the WHO, The Pan American Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Leveraging our existing network of IoT devices, we plan to offer air-quality-as-a-service (AQAAS), significantly lowering the technical and commercial barriers to entry. 

In collaboration with environmental consultants Rayten Engineering Solutions, the service includes the air quality monitoring instruments linked to our existing global IoT platform, combined with Rayten’s expert analytics and advisory service. Data and analytics are provided on pollutant type, concentration levels, the direction and distance of travel, as well as an estimate of the point of origin, appropriately also referred to as the POO. 

One possible application is to help identify factories illegally emitting pollutants into the atmosphere, allowing for follow-up action and effective enforcement of air quality regulations. The increased risk of being caught and the ensuing public embarrassment will create a powerful deterrent for those who might otherwise be unconcerned about air quality. 

Another possible application will be to identify communities who, out of sheer necessity, use wood, charcoal and even plastics for heating and cooking, so that NGOs, governments and business can devise strategies to provide viable, sustainable, healthier alternatives.

Bill Gates predicts that the countries that build great zero-carbon companies and industries will be the ones that lead the global economy in the coming decades. 

Climate change scientists and activists like Sir David Attenborough have raised the alarm that we are dangerously close to a tipping point at which climate change becomes irreversible, and that the planet that today sustains us could very well become our enemy.

Averting this disaster requires decisive action, but actions need to be measurable. Best we start measuring. DM

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  • Quite right. There is a saying in industry that “if you can’t measure it you can’t control it”. There is no doubt that measurement will drive action.