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Profile: Jane Burston is fighting a killer

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Published: 12 January 2022

A near-death experience prompted Jane Burston to devote her life to climate change. Now the founder of Clean Air Fund is fighting a killer: air pollution.

Smoke rises from a water heating plant during a cold weather in winter season in Moscow, Russia on January 07, 2021. Credit: Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency

CV Jane Burston

  • Executive Director, Clean Air Fund 2018-present
  • Member, Global Future Council on Energy, WEF 2016-2019; Co-Chair, Global Future Council on Clean Air, WEF, 2020-present
  • Head of Energy & Environment, (UK) National Physical Laboratory 2012-18
  • Founder & CEO, Carbon Retirement 2008-12
  • Strategy Consultant, 2003-08
  • University of Cambridge, Philosophy, 1999-2002

Jane Burston has strong green roots. Perplexed by animal cruelty, she gave up meat when she was eleven, and as a student fought to eliminate plastic in her college canteen.

But her real epiphany came when she was running the Chicago Marathon in a heatwave. Nearly a hundred emergency ambulances were called that day. One of them was for Burston.

She tells Impact Investor: “When you think you’re dying, it really concentrates the mind. You start to think about what is really important, and for me, the conclusion was easy: climate change. If I lived, I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to it.”

The climate emergency just got personal

Burston then worked for the National Physical Lab in the UK, looking at the sources of global greenhouse gas emissions. It was here she had her second light-bulb moment. “I realised these are very much the same culprits that cause dirty air, and that this might be the key to marshalling greater support for climate change,” she explains.

“When you speak to people about how clean is the air you breathe, they suddenly feel personally involved. You get their attention and can enlist them in the fight against climate change. The climate emergency just got personal.”

“Everyone has the right to breathe clean air. Yet 90% of people worldwide do not,” says Jane Burston.

Burston became CEO of Carbon Retirement, a small social enterprise seeking to address the shortfalls in carbon offsets. “As part of this work, I approached The Children’s Investment Fund (TCIF) and began a conversation with them. This gradually evolved into us together developing the clean air fund.”

TCIF is a London‐based hedge fund management firm founded by Chris Hohn in 2003, with an associated foundation. It made an initial investment of $20 million. “They feel clean air very much addresses their core mission of safeguarding the safety and quality of life for children.”

Clean air for all

The Clean Air Fund describes itself as “a philanthropic initiative with a mission to tackle air pollution around the world.”

Every year, many millions more people have to live with chronic conditions caused and exacerbated by air pollution. Burston: “This is why I set up and run a foundation which aims to secure clean air for all. It’s for our health and it’s also for the health of the planet.”

The World Health Organisation attributes 7 million deaths every year to air pollution, and says there are more than 70,000 scientific papers to demonstrate that air pollution is affecting our health. A recent study found “head-to-toe harm, from heart and lung disease to diabetes and dementia, and from liver problems and bladder cancer to brittle bones and damaged skin. Fertility, foetuses and children are also affected by toxic air.”

“Air pollution is a bigger killer than tobacco.”

Burston began the initiative at a UN climate summit with the support of six major funders who backed the general idea. So far, she has attracted some $50 million in funding. “We are really a pooled fund or what might be called a ‘re-granter.’” Technology is less a focus, more what Burston calls “addressing political will.”

“We don’t lobby ourselves. We work through our grantees, with four overwhelming priorities. Firstly, to encourage more transparent data; secondly, to raise awareness of the health and economic impact of pollution; thirdly, funding, and mentoring campaign organisations to create political will; and finally, working with decision makers.”

Identifying pollution hotspots

Burston tells us that the clean air fund does not fund research itself, as “there’s plenty of that around,” but rather likes to “work at applying research, particularly focused on specific local areas.” For example, the Clean Air Fund financed an important project in China which has helped identify four hundred pollution hotspots.

And in Bulgaria, it partnered with AirBG.Info in a combination of grassroots data-gathering and coordinated political campaigning. The pressure worked. In 2019 the newly re-elected mayor of Sofia announced numerous anti-pollution measures.

In such delicate political areas, “we are always careful not to take a position ourselves, or to indeed to have very much of a public profile. We don’t want to steal the thunder of our grantees.”

Burston says that while the Clean Air Fund is mainly about funding others, they do also do some things themselves. One example of this is their global air quality funding report.

This “identifies gaps in funding and opportunities for strategic investment and collaboration.” The latest report demonstrated clean air projects received 21% less funding than those promoting fossil fuels.

Putting some air into build-back-better agendas

Burston says Covid has had an effect in “making it clear to people that it was quite possible to achieve a dramatic change in air pollution. People saw what governments can do.” Now, she calls for government legislators to be “much more ambitious on air-quality standards and to do much more as part of their build-back-better agendas”.

Burston knows how to put pressure on governments, targeting key inflection points. In the UK at the moment that is the National Health Service, and Clean Air funded work to show the effect of poor air quality on stretching that service.

It also worked with business organisation CBI commissioning a report looking at the effect of pollution on productivity, demonstrating it costs the UK £1.6bn per year.

For Burston COP26 has not gone far enough. “Indeed, the COP26 final text contains not one mention of air pollution, one of the biggest health and climate challenges we face.” But she is optimistic that we will increasingly see the introduction of clean air zones seeking to reduce nitrogen dioxide. She believes this will “drive people more onto public transport or into electric cars.”

Tackling a killer

One thing that did happen around COP26 however was that the Clean Air Fund managed to pull together its first major corporate alliance on clean air. Burston is proud to have involved ten major multinationals who committed to measuring their air quality footprint. “I believe that by having such big ‘Guinea pigs’ we will achieve change.”

Going forwards, “Africa must be a major priority. Africa is where urbanisation is happening rapidly and air quality very much tracks that.”

She looks towards Egypt’s COP27 Presidency – “air quality needs to be top of the agenda. Everyone has the right to breathe clean air. Yet 90% of people worldwide do not. Air pollution is a bigger killer than tobacco.”

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