Air Quality

Key takeaways

  1. Air pollutants differ from greenhouse gases. While greenhouse gases affect the environment and contribute to global warming, air pollutants tend to be more harmful to human, animal, and plant health.

  2. When assessing air pollutants in your analysis, keep in mind that the reader should be able to gauge the breadth, depth, and persistence of the impact caused.

  3. Benchmark and compare different companies in the same industry, or use an industry average to allow the reader to gauge the impact.

What are they?

Human activity releases a large variety and quantity of air pollutants that have various adverse effects on human, animal, or vegetal health. In particular, industrial processes and the energy, manufacturing, and transport industry generate:

  • Particles - classified by size, typically PM10, which are coarse particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres (μm) or less; fine particles, designated PM2.5, with a diameter of 2.5 μm or less

  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

  • Sulphur oxides (SOx)

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

  • Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs)

  • Others*

These have no greenhouse gas effect but mainly a local impact on life in general, human’s in particular. They are the most commonly reported pollutants in terms of air pollution, as they have the greatest negative impact on health and respiratory problems.

Reminder: Never combine the discussion of these air pollutants with greenhouse gases, as they are separate topics.

*Other pollutants, such as methane (CH4) and carbon monoxide (CO), are linked to some health conditions, but only in certain circumstances. 

For example, an analysis can be accepted if there was an event where workers were exposed to a high level of concentration of such pollutants in a factory and endured significant adverse health effects. 

Groups are negatively affected when exposed to high concentrations indoors, but these same pollutants will not cause significant adverse health effects when released into the atmosphere.

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SDG choice

Emissions of these chemicals by businesses are mostly related to SDG 3 (impact on human health), but can also pertinent to SDG 6, 14 and 15.

✅ SDG 3

✅ SDG 6

✅ SDG 14

✅ SDG 15

Impact assessment

The air pollutants emitted by a single company are relatively small when comparing the volume to industrial, national, and global amounts, even if it is a major polluter such as an Oil & Gas or Mining company.

Because air pollution occurs from all sorts of activities worldwide, which cannot be pinpointed to a specific activity or location, pollutants spread and suspend in the air - affecting everyone. This causes adverse health effects, especially when exposed to prolonged periods of time.

As companies’ air pollutant emissions are regulated by governments that require mandatory reporting, many companies disclose their air pollutant emissions in their annual CSR/Sustainability report.

When analysing the emissions of a business's air pollutants, you should report the yearly, absolute quantity of pollutants emitted.

Make sure to describe the scale of the impact by taking into account:

1/ The breadth of the impact

  • Is the impact local, national, or global? Where are the air pollutants emitted?

  • How many people are concerned? Thousands? Millions? Billions?

2/ The depth of the impact

  • Is the life of people concerned deeply affected, or does the issue just marginally impact them?

  • Are the changes brought by the issue profoundly changing society or the planet?

3/ The persistence of the impact

  • How long would the impact described last for? Months? Years? Decades?

  • How reversible is the impact described in the impact analysis? Can it be easily stopped/extended?

After reporting the company’s overall air pollutants and the scale of the impact, you should benchmark these emissions. This will further help readers assess the scale and value of the impact. How significant are the emissions?

How can you benchmark the emissions?

  • Use studies in your introduction to state the impact of these pollutants on human health and explain why it is an issue in the company's industry. 

    As various symptoms can be triggered by air pollution, in which the blame cannot be attributed to a singular company, it is important to disclose the scale and the value of the impact in the introduction.

    A helpful statistic that shows how widespread the issue is, for example, that 91% of the world's population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits.

  • Then, compare the company’s emissions with the industry average or a close competitor if that number is not available.

  • If possible, analyse how much the company’s air pollutants represent the industry they are a part of.

  • If company or industry comparison is not available, you may compare it to the country's pollutants' emissions. 


Avoid comparing the company’s year-on-year release of air pollutants, leading to writing about remediation measures. Always remember to give the broader impact first.

In your analysis, make sure you add value to your readers and go beyond the company’s CSR report by not merely reporting data from the company’s report but going the extra mile of providing additional metrics, studies, and sources to make your analysis robust and the impact value and scale are clear.


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