Cleaning up our air and cutting the costs of pollution

London congestion charging zone road sign

Research equips government, business and wider society to tackle air pollution, resulting in lives saved, better health, lower costs and a cleaner environment.

The Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) £4.3 million investment helped set up cutting-edge ‘supersites’ in Birmingham, London and Manchester which are enabling more high-quality data on urban air pollution to be gathered than ever before.

The facilities are helping the UK comply with legally binding targets for air pollution. NERC science has enabled governments, businesses and communities to take evidence-based action to tackle air pollution, yielding benefits worth an estimated £1.2 billion per year.

Clean air underpins everything we need and value – our physical health, mental wellbeing, quality of life and the environment we depend on.

Poor air quality presents serious risks. In the UK air pollution is the fourth-biggest danger to public health and carries an estimated annual cost of £20 billion to health services and businesses. It causes tens of thousands of premature deaths in the UK each year, and has recently been shown to increase the risk of death from COVID-19. It also has wider implications, including:

  • links to dementia, heart disease and some types of cancer
  • damaged buildings
  • lower crop yields
  • harm to ecosystems
  • climate change.

In the face of the threats it brings, the importance of cutting air pollution cannot be overstated.

About the projects

Four decades of NERC investment have played a critical role in understanding air pollution and tackling it with practical solutions. NERC’s approach includes support for:

  • a combination of discovery science and targeted, interdisciplinary research designed in partnership with research users
  • outstanding facilities and equipment for measuring air pollution, including the ‘Supersite solution’
  • long-term monitoring to provide accurate data on pollutant types and trends
  • reinforcing and extending the UK’s world-leading knowledge base on air quality
  • maximising benefits by working positively and proactively with government and businesses.

Impacts of the projects

Research supporting policy

By 2018, UK sulphur dioxide emissions had fallen 98% compared with 1970. Key to this achievement was the 1979 international Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), which built on NERC-funded work demonstrating the link between acid rain and burning fossil fuels.

NERC research was a key platform for the UK’s Clean Air Strategy 2019. For example, our work triggered a new policy approach to cutting emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), prompting vehicle manufacturers to take action. It was also the foundation for London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). Since ULEZ was introduced, nitrogen dioxide emissions in the city have fallen 44%.

Two computer models developed with NERC and Defra funding that show how air pollutants react to produce ozone in the atmosphere are widely used in the UK and overseas to improve air quality policy.

Forecasts reduce air pollution exposure

The NERC-funded Clean Air for London (Clearflo) project underpins daily air-quality forecasts relied on by individuals and local government. These are especially valuable for people whose health suffers when pollution levels are high.

NERC-funded research led to improved Met Office forecasts on the formation of ozone and other pollutants associated with heatwaves, saving an estimated 24 lives for every 10 days of heatwave.

NERC-supported researchers developed the national pollen forecasting system which provides daily forecasts for the Met Office, business and the media. The system helps the UK’s estimated 15 million hay fever sufferers and reduces associated health-related and productivity losses estimated at £970 million per year.

Jobs and revenue for the clean air tech sector

NERC-funded atmospheric scientists at the University of Hertfordshire (UH) developed a low-cost technology for monitoring particulate air pollution that has since generated:

  • millions of pounds in revenue
  • new jobs
  • benefits to human health.

The World Health Organisation has declared air pollution to be a public health emergency. In the UK alone an estimated 40,000 deaths per year are linked to air pollution, and it costs health services and businesses an estimated £20 billion per year.

The patented UH Optical Particle Counter (OPC) design was developed in 2011 to 2013. It was a game-changer at the time, capable of accurately monitoring particulate air pollution at a fraction of the cost and power requirement of previous technology, and of operating unattended long-term.

It was licensed to UK-based Alphasense Ltd, a leading air pollution sensor manufacturer, in 2013 and opened up new worldwide markets generating tens of millions of pounds in direct and indirect commercial revenue to date and supporting significant job growth at Alphasense and other companies.

More than 21,000 OPC units have been included in air quality monitoring systems in more than 70 countries. The technology has also benefitted human health by enabling authorities to map and then act on air pollution hotspots.

The OPC is incorporated in air pollution monitoring technology recommended by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). As a result, it is being installed by UNEP and local governments in cities across the world.

The low cost of the technology has also empowered communities to monitor their own air quality, with citizen-led science projects established in five countries to date.

The UH team was funded by NERC through the strategic research and capital funding streams.

Investing for the future

NERC is committed to funding research to better understand air pollution and find new ways of addressing it.

Clean air analysis and solutions

This £42.5 million UKRI-funded programme led by NERC and the Met Office will protect health and support clean growth by developing solutions to today’s air quality issues. It will also equip the UK to tackle future challenges proactively.

Improving air quality in the West Midlands

A £4 million programme will boost understanding of sources and levels of pollution in the region. It will also develop new capability to predict how policy measures would affect air quality, health and the economy there.

Urgency grants

These grants will enable researchers to examine COVID-19’s impact on air quality and the resulting health implications. The results are already informing government actions.

Find out more

Find air quality forecasts on the London Air Quality Network website.

Read the Deloitte report on the economic and social impact of selected NERC-funded research.

Top image:  A sign for the Ultra Low Emission Zone and Congestion Charging zone in London. Credit: Getty Images.

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