Bringing together action on air pollution and climate change


The Clean Air Fund explains why we must bring together action on air pollution and climate change.

The ‘cobra effect’, is a concept dating to when British colonial rulers in India attempted a solution but instead made an existing problem worse. This is the trap governments face today by not addressing the interconnected problems of climate change and air pollution together.  

Concerns about the growing number of cobras in Delhi led the government to offer a reward for every dead snake. This was successful to start with but backfired when entrepreneurial citizens started to breed cobras for the financial incentives they offered. When the government ended the bounty, breeders set these now worthless snakes free. The upshot: the cobra population increased rather than decreased. 

The ‘cobra effect’ is reminiscent of the switch from petrol to diesel vehicles, incentivised by governments in pursuit of targets agreed at Kyoto in 1997. The move was aimed at reducing CO2 emissions. 

Regardless of if this was achieved, it is indisputable that the measures resulted in increased nitrogen oxides (NOx), air pollutants that are toxic for humans. A more recent example of problem-solving which sets climate-harming emissions against health-harming emissions is the shift from fossil fuels to higher blends of biofuels (>15%) which can, in the end, increase emissions of NOx and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

The resulting higher uptake of biomass to replace natural gas and promote renewable energy has led to an increase in VOC, solid PM, and carbon monoxide (CO) decreasing urban air quality.  

A new briefing paper, ‘Joined-up action on air pollution and climate change’, argues that governments need to pursue a much more integrated approach. Instead of tackling the complex issues of air pollution and climate change in parallel or at cross purposes, the Clean Air Fund argues that by adopting a more coordinated approach at every level, governments can save money, save lives, and cut carbon use. 

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