How innovation can provide a breath of fresh air for the UK’s pollution woes

As part of edie's innovation month of editorial content, Matt Mace turns the spotlight to air quality, speaking with experts, innovators and incumbents about how innovation and new technology can alleviate spiralling pollution levels across the country.

The UK’s air quality woes are well-documented. London is the receiver of much of the criticism, but toxic smog clouds aren’t exempt from other areas of the UK; with the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealing that 10 UK towns and cities, ranging from Glasgow and Eastbourne, are failing to meet international air quality standards.

The WHO study goes on to reveal that even more UK regions have been breaching limits for PM2.5 particulate matter – tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the atmosphere to appear hazy when levels are elevated. Gibraltar, for example, has a worse annual air quality score than London when it comes to PM2.5 levels.

But despite these nationwide failings, London remains the city at the centre of the UK’s air quality debate and in truth, there is good reason for this: the capital was handed another “shameful reminder” of its toxic air pollution levels by breaching annual legal limits just five days into 2017

Fortunately, this breach hasn’t been met with a mere slap on the wrist. Environmental law firm ClientEarth was embroiled in a High Court case with the Government over its failure to crack down on air pollution over the past few years, and finally won its landmark case in November.

But the truth is, the UK has broken EU legal limits – which stipulates that sites are only allowed to breach set hourly limits of nitrogen oxide (NO2) 18 times in a year – consistently since 2010. WHO standards for PM10 particulate matter (think dust, pollen and mold spores) are currently set at a “safe” annual average of 20 micrograms per cubic metre, but PM10 levels have also been breached on numerous occasions in the UK.

But when all of this information gets relayed to the general public, does it actually manifest into meaningful understanding? ‘NO2’, ‘particulate matter’ and ‘micrograms per cubic meter’ are unlikely to resonate with London residents. But when the effects of air pollution is translated into ‘10,000 premature deaths every year’, people start to take note.

The UK’s efforts to combat air quality are at a crossroad: as part of the low-carbon transition, the Government is looking to decarbonise its transport and building sectors – arguably the two biggest causes of pollution spikes.

Innovative policy

Yet, green building retrofits and electric vehicle (EV) rollouts are still attached to unattractive capital costs for consumers and businesses. EVs may be expected to represent 35% of all car sales by 2040, but with the “affordable” models still costing upwards of £20,000, there is an urgent need for developed innovations to be introduced at a faster pace.

So says Simon Birkett, founder and director of campaign group Clean Air in London. “The first legal breaches in 2017 highlight the severity of the problem and we need to hammer down the bad things and push up sharply on the good things,” Birkett says. “Pushing up on the good things is about innovation in all its senses of the word – we need a mixture of political leadership, technology and innovation and lifestyle changes. There is a powerful role for innovation to engage the public.”

Birkett appreciates the work that new London Mayor Sadiq Khan is doing to steer London’s air quality ambitions in the right direction, but warns that political “chaos” could arise due to the number of policies aimed at curbing emissions from driving.

Key proposals unveiled by Khan over the past few months include introducing the central London Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019 – a year earlier than planned – and expanding the ULEZ beyond central London from 2020. The Mayor has also vowed to implement a £10 emissions surcharge on the most polluting vehicles entering central London from 2017, which would allegedly be the toughest crackdown on the most polluting vehicles by any major city around the world. Additionally, all double-decker buses will be required to be ULEZ-complaint in central London from 2019, while proposals have been drawn up for a national diesel scrappage scheme.

For Birkett, who is also chairing a Neighbourhood Forum to improve air quality in Knightsbridge, the London Mayor now needs to set a “bolder endpoint” that increases charges early on to produce change amongst consumer actions straightaway. Birkett has previously worked with former Deputy Mayor for Transport Isabel Dedring to create innovative blueprints aimed at streamlining the decarbonisation process. The blueprints would work in a similar fashion to an emissions trading scheme and would see heavy polluters pay charges and give it to those who walk or cycle around the city.

This is the “type of innovation that we need”, according to Birkett, while the Government slowly rolls out its low-emission zones. Birkett notes that one company that he is in conversation with had a 100-strong waiting list for secure bicycle parking. If businesses could incentivise different, and zero-emission forms of transport, Birkett feels that it will “get the people to wake up”. The Clean Air in London founder would also like to see a pedestrianisation policy, similar to one used in Paris, introduced to help control air pollution levels.

But Birkett is also excited about the raft of new consumer-facing apps that are being introduced to help raise awareness of the issue.

Consumer-facing innovations

One such air quality app that has already hit the market is ‘AirView’ developed by Swedish firm Blueair. The company aims to educate and inform people on both indoor and outdoor air pollution and the AirView app, which is available to users here in the UK, gathers data from more than 2,700 gauging stations in 150 countries to provide hourly updates on air pollution levels.

For Blueair’s chief operating officer Herman Pihlträd, the science behind monitoring and data has never been stronger. However, this is failing to translate in a way that consumers can begin to mitigate outdoor and indoor air pollution issues. “In order to achieve any sort of change, we have to get the public to acknowledge the problem,” Pihlträd says. “The scientific community is well aware of how dangerous it is with air pollution, but we don’t think the public really understands the size of the problem.

“It is a very technical, hard-to-grasp area for regular people. Images can say a thousand words, and if you graph the monitoring data in an easy-to-understand way, you can take consumer awareness and action one step further. But the development is not hard enough.”

Pihlträd believes that enhanced data collection abilities and the Internet of Things (IoT) have combined to create the most advanced monitoring capabilities over the last decade. Yet, this acceleration hasn’t been matched by innovation geared towards finding solutions that the data highlights.

The AirView app not only educates consumers on current air levels but can also be synced with ventilation systems and appliances to explain how – in regards to indoor pollutions – the levels are where they are. Once consumers understand what the levels mean and, crucially, what contributed to those levels, they can begin to change behaviours and demand action at a higher level, Pihlträd says.

Innovative infrastructure

Evidently, action is beginning to take place more rapidly – particularly among the private sector. Automotive manufacturers have unveiled a plethora of low-emission, all-electric, hybrid or hydrogen vehicles over the past 12 months. Clearly, they sense where the market is heading. A major concern, however, is the desperate need for rapid-charging infrastructure in order to attract customers and meet future demand levels.

Energy firm E.ON is one of the companies that are making headway in the EV charging market. The company recently developed a business unit for EV charging stations and currently operates 2,500 charging units. This year will see E.ON take things a step further, and for the firm’s director of customer solutions Phil Gilbert, the business case for innovative transport will be a key lever in improving air quality in cities.

“Electrification of the transport sector and decarbonised electricity supply are key contributors to meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets – but from a customer perspective the issues are much closer to home,” Gilbert says.

“Poor urban air quality is a major threat to public health, with car emissions from fossil fuels – in particular, diesel – wheeling through our cities posing a major burden to many of us individually and the NHS collectively. Zero exhaust emissions in cities, supported by the introduction of Clean Air Zones, will go a long way to help clean up the air we breathe in urban living. Electric cars, buses, trucks and vans deliver a major step-change in tackling air quality and improve quality of life.”

Gilbert and E.ON believe that consumers are increasingly becoming “prosumers” – heavily impacting the success or failure of companies, products, and brands rather than simply “consuming” them. This transformation has been driven by the digitalisation of the market, Gilbert says, and it will have a profound impact on the potential emissions impact of new products. While Gilbert acknowledges the need for EV infrastructural advancements, he is anticipating a time where zero-emission vehicles are integrated into the energy nexus; offering energy to the grid, while charge points offer real-time data relating to air quality and offer environmental readings, because that will be what the consumer wants.

Digitalisation, according to Gilbert, will act as a “megatrend” moving forwards, enabling consumer-facing and data-related innovations to accelerate and provide accurate readings. But as Clean Air London and Blueair have already pointed out, new innovations need to be able to solve the problem as well as highlight it.

edie’s innovation month

The month of January sees edie shift the editorial spotlight to green innovation, with a series of exclusive interviews, features and podcasts running throughout the month to celebrate the very best of emerging clean technologies and low-carbon systems.

Change will not happen without genuine innovation and so this month will explore the bleeding edge where change is really happening. From emerging tech to new business models; breakthrough approaches and creative leaders, we’ll shine the spotlight on the real game-changers and sort the facts from the fads.

Read all of edie’s innovation content here.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie