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An Industry Perspective On Clean Air Post-Brexit

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Roland Leigh standing outside the houses of parliament
Technical Director, Roland Leigh after a visit to the Houses of Parliament

EarthSense: the air quality experts

EarthSense was born from 15 years of air quality research at the University of Leicester, and was created to bring some cutting-edge techniques into the operational environment with the aim of:

  • contributing to resolving the current air quality crisis

  • promoting sustainable development and clean technologies

  • encouraging societal benefit and economic growth

EarthSense have clearly demonstrated organic growth within the team, with significant ambitions to grow and export abroad in the near future.

This is our perspective on the air quality aspects of Brexit, a summary of a speech presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution at the Houses of Parliament on 19th June 2018.

The Big Issues

92% of the world’s population is affected by poor air quality. To start with the obvious; any relaxation of air quality legislation, additional leniency shown for non-compliance, or even perception thereof, would be highly damaging to a wide range of industries across the UK.

If we trail other countries in this area, our industry will look to other countries for existing solutions, and our international competitiveness will diminish. Our export power reduces further as our perceived environmental credentials weaken, and we struggle to deliver services across the world from a country which is perceived as weak in terms of air quality.

The environmental monitoring sector would be heavily affected of course. It would also be accompanied by every industry which is no longer driven to innovate to comply with tight regulations.

Our automotive and engineering sectors, in addition to our sustainable urban development industries, will therefore not be helped in the medium or long term by anything other than leadership in approaches to tackle pollution.

Ideally, we would encourage, stimulate and initiate innovation through clean and demanding legislation. However, softer approaches must also be utilised, including the encouragement of industrial best practice in the area through accreditation schemes and intelligent public procurement.

Project ACCRA with Innovate UK

I was in Leeds last week, presenting the final results of an Innovate UK project called ACCRA which applied a number of key innovations to this problem. ​​

EarthSense instrumented electric vans, operated by Leeds City Council, with air quality monitoring equipment. As these vehicles travelled around Leeds on council business, measurements of ambient concentrations of key pollutants were captured and transmitted in real-time and integrated into a detailed model of Leeds.

 A hybrid HGV Zephyr® air quality sensor installed for the ACCRA trial

This model was then used to highlight polluted regions which require critical management.

Another Innovative UK company, TEVVA motors, have produced a hybrid HGV which can switch off emissions for limited periods on instructions from a central command centre.

The real-time air quality model from EarthSense, fed by the mobile air quality sensors, was then used to switch the HGV to zero emission mode in key areas. A highly innovative solution which is closely linked to the UK’s Big Data and Connected and Autonomous Vehicle challenges, this will provide genuine opportunities for UK industry to show technical leadership leading to job creation and export potential.

Technically advanced though this system may have been, it made decisions based on ambient concentrations, and did not account for population density in key areas, and the vulnerability of any individuals within this population,

How the UK Currently Measures Air Quality

The current EU metrics for air quality are based on relatively old techniques and technologies. A single number for a few pollutants are used to report on entire urban areas with hundreds of thousands of people.

With a scientific background, I am very aware of the value of consistent methodologies for measurement and modelling which allow trends over time to be reliably tracked without concerns over the impact of any changes in measurement technique.

We should therefore look to continue this baseline requirement for monitoring and build on it with innovative solutions which provide better decision-making information, and a more robust appreciation of the actual human health impact of any pollution.

Fighting For Air

In January this year we contributed to a well-received BBC documentary called Fighting for Air with Dr. Xand van Tulleken. In this programme, a school in Birmingham implemented a couple of key measures to reduce pollutant concentrations in its immediate area.

These measures included a “walking school bus” and closing of the road in front of the school to vehicles for the morning drop-off. We measured a 20% reduction in NO2 in the immediate vicinity of the school on this morning. This highlighted a few key points:

  1. Community-led action can be highly effective in managing local air quality issues

  2. Localised air quality interventions can be used to protect particularly vulnerable individuals

  3. New technologies and techniques can be used to enable innovative solutions to the air quality challenge.

The Effects of Poor Air Quality

We have an understanding in the UK of the health cost of poor air quality, and the economic impact of that. These figures of 40,000 premature deaths p.a., and £20bn. value are now a few years old.

  • Why do we not have these figures updated annually?

  • Shouldn’t we track this number year on year to understand the effectiveness of our interventions?

  • Can we update the methodology with our best understanding of where the pollution is and what the indoor situation is?

  • Must we explore where people are, how vulnerable they are, and the extent to which our health service is being tailored to respond more effectively to related A&E admissions and long-term care?

All these techniques should not be taken as a reason to reduce emissions at source, which is the best method to improve our air quality. However, there are optimisations which can be made in the short term, and the effectiveness of these should be captured.

Monitoring of such enhanced health metrics could be under the purview of the new environmental watchdog. It is interesting to wonder what might happen if we set ourselves the national target to reduce the cost by £1bn p.a.

If we failed to meet the target, should the UK commit to allocating that money to investing in improving air quality? In that way, any failure to meet our targets would result in further significant investment, and the invisible costs would be made visible. We need to give this watchdog teeth.

Pollution Postcode Checker

Earlier this year, EarthSense also launched a pollution post code checker in collaboration with the BBC. Approximately 2 million people used this facility in the first 48 hours. This shows the very significant public interest in this issue.

We have now introduced air quality reports for home buyers, allowing people to consider their pollution exposure in this critical financial decision.

This strong engagement from many angles within our society highlights the need for critical investment in behavioural change initiatives in this area. We need to understand what information people need, and how they will respond to it.

What happens next?

In conclusion, within the UK we have a heritage in cutting-edge engineering and innovation. We have an issue which is costing us £20bn per annum, and we need to encourage, stimulate and even initiate innovation in this area.

The global need covers 92% of the world’s population, and has a value of approximately £3tn. p.a. There are many ethical, societal and economic reasons for us to focus on this global problem and challenge ourselves to contribute significantly to its resolution.

We should build on EU legislation beyond Brexit to genuinely protect human health, stimulate growth and healthy competitiveness. The creation of sustainable cities of the future is critical for the global community, and the UK should be at the cutting edge.



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