Members who attended our Network Launch in January 2020 will remember the interesting presentation from John Newington, Head of Air Quality Evidence at Defra. John has kindly shared a paper about Defra’s areas of research interest, which we are pleased to share in full below.

Network members can use our new Discussion Board to raise and debate any of the topics of interest below.

Areas of Research Interest: Environmental Quality Outcome System – Air Quality and Noise

Air pollution commands significant political interest. Despite significant improvements, further reductions in emissions are needed to improve human and environmental health, ecosystem resilience and to address exceedances of statutory nitrogen dioxide limits, which are the focus of current legal challenges, and meet new emissions targets and ceilings. There is an increasing focus on the climate agenda and it is important that policies required to deliver Net Zero also deliver co-benefits for air quality and ecosystem function. Unintended consequences to air quality must be  avoided whilst incentivising decarbonisation of heat, energy and transport and reduction of agricultural emissions.

There are three broad areas of research and development need, to deliver our statutory International and domestic obligations and meet the delivery challenges we are facing in the short term (1-3 years) and medium term (4-10 years):

ARI 1: Air Quality improvements and their link to health & environmental impacts and outcomes

The ability to robustly articulate health and environmental costs and benefits of complex interventions are fundamental to the development of effective policy. Despite a reasonably strong evidence base there remain significant areas of uncertainty which require improved characterisation of the problems and their resulting impacts. These include:

  1. Differential PM toxicity: Understanding the different toxicities on different disease targets from various PM sources including secondary formation from ammonia, to enable better causal relationships to be made between source effects on health outcomes.
  2. Personal exposure and health inequalities: Improve our understanding and ability to apply it, at relevant scales across the variable exposure environments and individual experiences, including; from the indoor-outdoor interplay;  better understanding specific pollutants and mixtures; understanding whether total exposure or peak exposure drives health and ecosystem outcomes; understanding how exposure varies across the UK and whether it is linked to specific behaviours, socio economic reasons or other health inequality drivers.
  3. Non-exhaust Emissions (NEE): more detailed and accurate understanding of the NEE source apportionment across the UK and ability to interrogate historic trends and predict trends
  4. Behaviour change: understanding the scale of behaviour change needed to implement clean air policies and the mechanisms to realise those changes, at all tiers of societal organisation (individuals, business, government). Improve our understanding of the barriers to change and implications for air quality policy ambitions for people and places. 
  5. Quantifying and costing ecosystem change: understanding the air pollution effects on habitat resilience, species and ecosystem services and biodiversity targets if action is not taken to reduce emissions that lead to nitrogen deposition and acidification. What is the financial cost of ecosystem damage and remediation. How does ecosystem damage impact development aspirations and land use planning ambitions. Identify habitat change including recovery for policy evaluation.
  6. Measurement of particle characteristics across UK: New legislative requirements for measuring and reporting Ultrafine Particles, particle number (as well as mass) and Black Carbon are likely in the near future. Improved understanding of their importance and relevance to environmental and health outcomes are needed to inform policy decisions and UK measurement capability
  7. Understanding of what works: systematic evaluations of air quality interventions at all scales across the UK for all air pollutants.

ARI 2: Evidence capability transformation & innovation

The field of air quality science would significantly benefit from focused research into the development of new techniques to draw out the salient evidential messages from wider sets of information. Many of these techniques are developed in isolation where a systems approach to developing UK capability would be beneficial. Research and development of practical approaches to utilising the UK’s capabilities in this area could provide significant benefit in both better characterising the problems and delivering policy and technical solutions. For example:

  1. Better characterise current environment – improve the accuracy and performance of models used to estimate emissions and concentrations of Air Pollutants and keep up with the changes in the world around us. 
  2. Combined atmospheric science, ecosystem and health outcomes datasets: Deliver research maximising the information to be found within existing atmospheric science and health outcomes data to increase our understanding intervention options and impacts, aid decision making, reduce air pollutant emissions and improve health and environmental net gain outcomes. Develop Novel approaches and methods to combine and use these and new local, national and global datasets.
  3. Innovation in measurement and data science techniques  for evidence improvement and policy evaluation purposes to make local and national scale decision making improvements: Maximise the benefits and practical application of i) low-cost sensors ii) the ‘internet of things’ iii) use of Artificial Intelligence Techniques iv) Use of model-coupling and model systems approaches v) combining proxy datasets e.g. SMART city data vi) data merging and fusion techniques vii) EO technology and data to improve national and local emission inventories 
  4. Systems thinking: develop system thinking research and incorporate air quality into broader research areas, including urban land use planning, building design, net zero policy development and into the delivery of an enhanced system of AQ evidence infrastructure to deliver the evidence base of the future. Develop more flexible and inter-operable model systems across disciplines.
  5. Data Discovery and Re-use: Improve the accessibility and transparency of UK data sets through continued use of open data and/or data sharing and standardisation of relevant data sources, considering synergies with other domains, e.g. noise, biological, health and environmental parameters, ecosystem condition, meteorology.

ARI 3: Abatement Innovation and streamlining of implementation through planning

Air pollution is a result of the way we currently generate power, heat our homes, produce food, manufacture consumer goods and power transport. Better, cleaner technologies and changes in behaviour will tackle the pollution and reduce people’s exposure and health impact whilst protecting ecosystems. Technological Innovation and development of new ways of working across all sectors and in all environments where people are exposed will be needed. Specifically, research and development to tackle the following emerging challenges is a priority:

  1. Working practices and technology to reduce ammonia (and other pollutant) emissions from livestock production and anaerobic digestion and the subsequent digestate management, 
  2. Abatement Innovation across all sectors, specifically, domestic combustion, transport sectors, agriculture, industrial processes subject to BAT and IED and facilitation of risk assessment through integrated tools to streamline decision-making and implementation.
  3. Emissions from non-exhaust road transport emissions (brake and tyre wear)
  4. Building design and indoor product development to reduce VOC, PM and other air pollutant emissions from all sources found in UK homes. 

John Newington, December 2019