Air Pollution and Climate Change

Last Wednesday, we were delighted to host Mark Broomfield, Technical Director at Ricardo Energy and Environment as the keynote speaker for our Climate Change Networking Evening. Mark has over 30 years’ experience as an air quality assessment and management specialist and came to speak to us about the intersections between the fields of air pollution and climate change. Author of the popular science book, “Every breath you take: a user’s guide to the atmosphere”, published in 2019, Mark has provided support to the UK Government and regulators, the European Commission, local authorities, industrial and commercial clients since 1992. In the UK, he has led the delivery of regional air quality modelling studies in support of strategic development planning and is responsible for complex and challenging aspects of the UK’s National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (NAEI) and Greenhouse gas inventory which supports national policy and progress towards meeting international commitments.

More than 99% of the world’s population breathe unhealthy air, and as a result, 7 million people suffer an early death as a result of air pollution each year. This translates to an estimated 2.2 years off global average life expectancy. Air pollutants are responsible for up to 45% of global warming, and on top of that, air pollutants and greenhouse gases are often emitted from the same sources. This is both a huge challenge, and a great opportunity to take effective steps to deal with the related problems of a changing climate and a polluted atmosphere at the same time.

We learned that whilst the first UK Climate Change Act came into effect in 2008, the first legislation pertaining to air pollution was in 1273, against the banning of sea coal in London due to the pollution it caused. In 1661, courtier John Evelyn wrote a letter to Charles II with the title, “Fumifugium, or the inconvenience of the aer and smoake of London dissipated,” stating the burning of this coal was responsible for coughs, low birth rates and high mortality. These issues are of course still linked to air pollution today.

Recently, Mark told us, the Environmental Audit committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP stated, “It is estimated that between 28,000 and 36,000 people die every year in the UK as a result of human-made air pollution. This simply shouldn’t be happening, and we must do everything in our power to improve the air that we all breathe”. These statistics make air pollution the leading environmental cause of death in the UK, despite this however, the UK remains on the more positive end of the scale with Asia and South America faring a lot worse. Frequently around the world, it is quite common for air pollution levels to rise over safe levels on the Air Quality Index scale, sometimes five or ten times the standard level – and having severely disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable in society. For example, in Pakistan there have been essentially no country-wide programme of air quality monitoring since 2009, and there remain barriers to improving air quality in the Global South.

Improving air quality contributes to at least four of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030: No. 3 “Good Health and Wellbeing”, No.7 “Affordable and Clean Energy”, No. 11. “Sustainable Cities and Communities”, and No.13 “Climate Action”, demonstrating just how integral to a sustainable and equitable future air quality really is.

Mark spoke to us about the divide between the air quality and climate change spheres and encouraged more collaboration. While these two areas may have many connections, there are many missed opportunities for win-wins to deal with both GHGs and air pollutants – and conversely, sometimes the two areas may actually work against each other. For example, catalytic convertors are great for improving air quality but not great for climate; while biomass burning in cities can help improve climate but creates damaging air pollution.

Mark ended his presentation with a brilliant and positive example of a recent project in Mongolia which has improved both air quality and supported climate change remediation, in a truly sustainable way. Yurt occupiers in Ulaanbaatar were given loans for improved insulation and solar panels to replace coal burning. Sensors were installed to track electricity supply and temperature as well as relative humidity in the yurt, with carbon savings validated, tracked and linked to the individual occupier. The carbon savings are credited directly, providing an income stream for the family to pay off the loan, so they end up with low cost energy, ongoing income, improved air quality in their home and for their neighbours. We would like to see more projects like this!

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