“These changes take courage, but they’re starting to happen”: In conversation with Professor Anthony Costello

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Srivatsan Raj | Research Associate

Date: 27 May 2024

Air quality and climate change are perhaps the two greatest environmental challenges of modern time, demanding urgent action. More than nine million deaths are attributed to air pollution each year, while climate change amplifies existing risks and creates new ones. This includes more frequent extreme weather events like floods and droughts, rising sea levels threatening coastal communities, and the change in the spread of diseases into new regions However, solutions do exist, and technological innovation will play a crucial role.

To explore this further, Srivatsan Raj, Research Associate in Air Quality & Net Zero at Trilateral Research, sat down with Professor Anthony Costello, a pioneer in global health and leader of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, to discuss how we can use new technology to drive environmental action.

Srivatsan Raj:
So, Anthony, since 2009, you’ve been involved in climate change What motivated you to get involved in projects and work on the intersection of climate change and health, and how has your research evolved in the area?

Anthony Costello: Back in 2007, I was focused on problems facing poor communities in South Asia and Africa, improving maternal and child health interventions. Then I heard from climate scientists who completely changed my perspective. The news was bad, not just for the planet but especially for poorer countries.

I connected with colleagues at the University College London (UCL) to set up the first Lancet Commission in 2009, declaring climate change the greatest health threat of the 21st century. Things are moving faster and getting worse than we even predicted.

But then nothing much happened. A few years later, we did a second commission. We changed the message around. We said everything you want to do for climate change is good for your health. And of course, air pollution is probably the most important factor. It’s rampant around the world. The WHO figures are 99% of people breathe unsafe air.

The one contribution I’ve made is proposing we need a ‘countdown’ to track progress. There are great climate experts, but having an understanding of population health gives you another level of expertise. So yeah, we’re all in it together.

Srivatsan Raj: Despite knowing the dangers, frustration and inaction are common responses. What keeps you motivated to continue?

Anthony Costello: It’s true, there’s always that battle between optimism bias in my generation, and a sense of overwhelming anxiety in yours. But giving in to either is useless emotion. There’s so much we can do. Yes, we’re late to the game, but it’s never too late to take action. Some dismiss the issue, but I focus on the positive. Humans are ingenious, especially when forced. The severe impacts of climate change will hopefully create a unity we desperately need. Humans are ingenious, especially when forced.

Srivatsan Raj: What are the biggest barriers to tackling climate change and air pollution?

Anthony Costello: The huge improvements in our world have been a result of the industrial revolution, and that fuels the global economy. You can’t just flick a switch and make a transition. There’s going to be a lot of resistance from almost everyone in the global economy. They are suspicious of doom-mongering. We’ve heard similar fears before – about nuclear threats, overpopulation… But what struck me back in 2007, is that evolution is clever. Our waste products, pollution and carbon dioxide, are starting to fight back.

But we’ve made major agreements – the Paris Agreement, the SDGs. I believe we’re nearing a social and political tipping point, where we’ll mobilize to overcome the resistance before the planet’s changes become truly irreversible. It’s a critical race.

Srivatsan Raj: Air pollution feels tangible and easier to connect to health impacts – is that a key focus?

Anthony Costello: Absolutely. It’s the biggest environmental issue globally. Most people can see and feel air pollution in cities, unlike the invisible gas of CO2. Tackling air pollution helps address both problems at once. Technology is key here. We need to massively expand our knowledge around air pollution’s health effects. But the most important thing is effective, widespread monitoring and reporting right at the local level.

Imagine knowing your street’s air quality is three times the safe limit. That creates pressure on politicians and mobilizes communities for action.

Srivatsan Raj: What about new technologies like AI? Could it play a role in air quality management or warning systems?

Anthony Costello: There’s lots of potential, but also concerns. There’s a lot of hype around AI and large language models. The energy cost is enormous. That said, if invested into the right solutions, it could be transformative. I see its value mainly in administrative and management frameworks.

For air quality, though, I think the most potent tech would be reliable, affordable, handheld monitors. That sparks grassroots change. Imagine your local school campaigning because the pollution levels they’re monitoring are unsafe. That shifts the power dynamics to those most at risk, where politicians can’t afford to ignore it.

Srivatsan Raj: How do we translate this complex data into something that drives action? Should we focus on local, grassroots change or pushing changes at higher policy levels?

Anthony Costello: Both are essential, but history shows that when people are affected locally, it puts pressure on the system. Think back to the London smog – it led to the Clean Air Act. We need that now, globally, but much faster. Tech is crucial in making this data simple, understandable, and accessible.

Think of traffic-light coded warnings: your road has been in the ‘red zone’ for a week straight – what’re you going to do?  That sparks a very different conversation with politicians than dense scientific reports.

Srivatsan Raj: Another issue is fairness. Places like Delhi have horrific air pollution, yet political change is slow. How do we speed things up using this data?

Anthony Costello: Data is powerful only if presented in ways that people understand. Massive IPCC reports do little for the average person. We need that information broken down locally to build pressure from the ground up. But we also need systemic shifts.

Economists point out that we tax the ‘good things’ like labour and income, but the polluting industries largely get away free. Macron learned this with his diesel tax protests. The answer is not to change the overall tax burden, but to frame it as a swap. Increase pollution taxes, explicitly cut income taxes in response. You incentivize good choices, protect vulnerable workers through subsidies, and build better public transport alongside.

These changes take political courage, but they’re starting to happen. London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone is a good example – Sadiq Khan faced criticism initially but stuck with it despite paying a political price. It is about finding the right balance, as the average everyday workers feel like they are now being taxed further, but we now know that the ULEZ helped reduce air pollution levels by about 30%.

Srivatsan Raj: Climate change disproportionately impacts poorer countries and communities. How do we ensure solutions protect those most at risk, while also getting wealthier populations to acknowledge their greater responsibility?

Anthony Costello: This is a huge issue. Yes, the ultra-rich are a major problem, but so is our broader lifestyle. Many in the middle-class travel too much. Carbon taxes are one part of it, increasing the cost of polluting choices. We need to change the system so the better options are the cheaper and easier ones. But what you should do not change the overall tax burden, you say, you say we are introducing this to prevent pollution so we will cut your income tax. And then you can also build in some protection for like small independent workers that need vans to get to work, and also provide better public transport.

But I think there is not enough courage from the main politicians to hike up your carbon taxes, massively, and then you see people because it is the rich people are doing most of the pollutants. As John Maynard Keynes once said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” Of course, this isn’t a reason to ignore the issue, but rather to focus our energy on action while we still have time.

We also need continued pressure and a shift in mindset. We can’t be doom-mongers, but ignoring the reality won’t help either.

Srivatsan Raj: Thank you for your time, Anthony.

Trilateral Research is turning environmental data into actionable insights with our STRIAD:AIR solution to understand the impacts of air pollution. Find out more about how we harness the power of ethical AI to address the climate change and air quality.

Some sections have been edited or condensed for clarity.

For a deeper dive into how local environmental data can drive grassroots climate action, read our related article on AirQualityNews.


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