Air QualityEnvironment & ClimateFossil Fuels

How can we tackle the growing pollutants in the air we breathe?

By October 29, 2019 No Comments

How can we tackle the growing pollutants in the air we breathe? Clean air strategies & the Clean Air Summit, London.

The Clean Air Summit held in London last week (22-23 October 2019) highlighted the need for our cities to clean up their air quality. City Mayors from the across the UK & the world, FTSE 100 business owners & heads of the NHS & WHO; joined together to share ideas, discuss policies & release the Clean Air Declaration, which calls on the UK government to step up their action to tackle air pollution. ‘The declaration highlights the need for programmes that support people to switch to active travel and public transport, as well as to stimulate the market for zero emission vehicles. It proposes the creation of a £1.5bn vehicle fleet renewable fund to help accelerate the shift to zero emission vehicles’ (1)

London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has been hailed as a trail blazer when it comes to clean air strategies for the city of London, with the ULEZ, electric City Buses & now the first fully electric Taxi Cab, the Nissan Dynamo, among the incentives he has spearheaded.

However, the reality of air pollution, particularly in our cities, was reiterated by Greater Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham “air pollution is an urgent matter of health injustice and inequality,” calling it “our largest environmental risk to public health.” Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates that toxic air kills seven million people a year – more than HIV, TB and malaria combined. (1)

Earlier this month (11.10.19), 35 Mayors joined together in Copenhagen & pledged to deliver for the more than 140 million people that live in their cities (2)

By signing the C40 Clean Air Cities Declaration, the mayors recognised that breathing clean air is a human right and commit to work together to form an unparalleled global coalition for clean air (2)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised that ambient (outdoor) air pollution is contributory to an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally each year (3) The statistics for premature worldwide ambient air pollution deaths are staggering:

  • 29% of all deaths and disease from lung cancer
  • 17% of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection
  • 24% of all deaths from stroke
  • 25% of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease
  • 43% of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (3)

The concerns from the UN cite pollutants with the widest evidence for public health concerns as particulate matter (PM), Ozone, Nitrogen dioxide & sulphur Dioxide. The health risks which have been associated with PM of less than 10 & 2.5 microns in diameter are of great concern. PM has the capacity to penetrate deep into lung passageways, entering the bloodstream & subsequently causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular & respiratory diseases. In 2013, it was classified as a cause of lung cancer by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (3)

The monitoring of air quality has been a priority for many countries for many years. The WHO & UNEP have operated an air monitoring programme as part of the Global Environment System since 1974 & monitors the air quality of some 50 cities in 35 countries.

The initial scope of was to monitor the quantities of sulphur dioxide, suspended particulate matter & lead in the atmosphere. However, in 1991, the network expanded to measure SPM less than 10 microns in diameter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide & ozone. (4)

We have explored previously how some start-up’s & innovators are striving to find ways to clean up our cities air. In May this year (14.05.19) we reported on how Arborea’s ‘BioSolar Leaf’ technologies could dramatically improve air quality in our cities.

14.05.19 – With the prospect of London & City Hall promoting the use of vertical planting & citizens trying to plant as much ‘greenery’ as they can, one new start up Arborea in collaboration with Imperial College London, are spearheading their ‘BioSolar Leaf’ technology to improve air quality. The technology, which is the first of its kind in the world, purifies the air through the photosynthesis of microscopic plants, removing greenhouse gases from the environment whilst generating breathable oxygen.

Arborea have developed an innovative cultivation system which facilitates the growth of tiny plant-life – such as microalgae, diatoms and phytoplankton – on large solar panel-like structures. These can then be installed on land, buildings and other developments to improve surrounding air quality. The team say that Arborea’s cultivation system can remove carbon dioxide & produce breathable oxygen at a rate equivalent to a hundred trees from the surface area of just a single tree. (5)

With the focus clearly on how we need to clean up our air quality & in doing so prevent premature deaths due to air pollutants; where in the world have they or are they managing to strike a balance?

One of the Worlds most fascinating places is the Kingdom of Bhutan. High up in the Himalayan mountains, Bhutan is the only place in the world which is carbon negative, meaning that it takes in more greenhouse gases than it emits.

Bhutan covers an area of approximately 14,800 square miles & it’s vast woodlands cover approximately 70% of the country, acting as a carbon sink. As a result, the nation of approximately 750,000 people, removes nearly three times as much CO2 as it produces.

Bhutan’s ability to be a net carbon sink is partly down to its natural forests and the fact that it is relatively undeveloped with most people working in agriculture or forestry, which means it emits less than 2.5 million tons of CO2 each year (6)

Therefore, if Bhutan is managing to hold on to it’s carbon negative status, what are the rest of the world doing to try & keep up & are there valuable lessons to be learnt from the Himalayan Kingdom?

Halifax – Nova Scotia – Canada & Helsinki – Finland are two cities which are setting examples for the rest of the world. With Canada ranking fourth for air quality on the Environmental Performance Index (7) & Finland ranking sixth; how are these two countries paving the way for better air quality for the citizens of their towns & cities?

Halifax, Nova Scotia takes a holistic approach to cleaner air & have initiated a sustainable environment strategy, which is far reaching & accessible by all. The strategy includes solutions such as “biofuels, reduced idling programs, district energy plans, community energy planning, energy performance contracts, pesticide use reduction, & vehicle and bus emission reduction (8) The citizens of Halifax are well know for their environmentally conscious ways of living, with 22% accessing public transport, cycling or walking to work & 23.5% of the population carpooling. (8)

Finland is renowned for innovation & it’s environmental standpoint. An example of this is the Clean Air for Helsinki programme which started in 2017 & with a clear focus on reducing nitrogen dioxide from traffic & wood burning. A considerable proportion of Helsinki residents use their bicycles as their main mode of transport & the city has 2,400 miles of bike lanes to support & encourage this form of carbon emissions reduction. (8)

Despite the figures clearly pointing towards a dramatic need to reduce & tackle the pollutants in our air & improve our air quality; it is abundantly clear that City Mayors, industry leaders & policy makers are keen to find ways to combat this. Funding is naturally an obstacle, as more & more cities look to their governments for financial support to implement their environmental strategies.

Written by Katy-Jane Mason for & on behalf of Dolphin N2