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Bringing Air Quality to Attention at Highways UK

Updated: Jan 17

We were thrilled to be a part of Highways UK at the NEC last year. The event was the biggest yet, with discussions further showcasing how the highways sector is pivoting towards digitisation. There were over 9,000 attendees over the two days with the main sectors’ attendees coming from civil engineering or contracting companies, government and construction.[1] We are proud to have exhibited at the event last year, with our outstanding air quality team on hand to discuss our products, strategies, and solutions for reducing harmful emissions … in between attending talks regarding sustainability and air quality!

EarthSense Air Quality Solutions Booth at Highways UK, CEO Tom Hall, Greg Lewis, Punit Patel and Janet Phillips are stood in the stand.

Throughout the event, we saw how important data is to the highways sector, and how the push for net zero and carbon reduction targets is putting pressure on us to change the way things are done. More thought is going into the carbon impact of everyday activities, and the planning of projects and infrastructure is now heavily revolving around sustainability strategies and net-zero targets. Air quality plays a key role in the data powerhouse that helps drive sustainability decisions. Understanding this role can help mitigate the invisible threat to not only the environment but to workers and the public too. In this blog, we share some of the interesting presentations we attended that link to air quality and sustainability. It was fantastic to see how much the topic of air quality has grown over the years at events such as Highways UK. The more we understand and talk about changes in air quality, the bigger impact and change we can make to help make the air cleaner and better for all.


Carbon Decision Making: A data-driven approach

James Hewson, Head of Information Management at Jacobs, a professional services supplier to Highways UK and the UK Government, presented an excellent talk about the importance of an end-to-end carbon strategy. Hewson mentioned that some of the common challenges found in organisations are that benefits are not being maximised, data can be inaccessible and of course, the legalisation and fines if breaches do occur.


He mentioned the importance of setting objectives to help guide organisations towards carbon reduction targets, and how having accurate data gives more precise carbon level results, helping organisations to make better targets and solutions.

It is also important that data is easily accessible and relevant to overall targets and objectives, to allow organisations to make informed decisions, help educate and better plan their pathway to carbon reduction. Data can also help to demonstrate value for money by showing if investments are making an impact. And data is important for traceability – having historical data can help us understand how carbon emissions occur, which initiatives are working best, and which areas need further improvement.

Picture of heavy traffic and cars to show traffic pollution.

Reports published by National Highways highlight the current progress from net zero initiatives – 99.7% of its electricity is now renewable and there have been emission decreases in all three of its key focus areas. Corporate emissions have fallen by 61% overall, maintenance and construction emissions have decreased by 9% and road user emissions have seen reductions of around 6%.


Some closing remarks from Hewson included the need to open the access to data. Data can be a powerful tool to make real impacts, especially during construction projects. Hewson also mentioned the need to have data standardisation, which will help with data access and usability.


Charting the path to clean air: Leveraging technology to manage congestion and capacity.

For local authorities, clean air is no simple task, it is a complex challenge entangled with various socio-economic factors, public perceptions, and logistical hurdles. The panel discussion was hosted by Max Sugarman, Chief Executive at ITS (UK) with Keith McCabe, Carbon Ambassador at ITS (UK), Alexander Lewis-Jones, Founder of Other Way, and Malcolm Wilkinson, Head of Energy for Highways England on the panel discussing how leveraging technology can help ease some of these complex challenges.


One of the critical points highlighted was the reliance on old weather data and the profound influence of weather patterns on clean air data. Weather intricacies can significantly skew the accuracy of clean air measurements, presenting a hurdle in formulating precise strategies based on such data.


Implementing Clean Air Zones (CAZ) and speed limits, though instrumental in curbing emissions, often face resistance from the public. This resistance poses a challenge for local authorities striving to strike a balance between implementing necessary measures and appeasing public sentiment.


White car at an EV charging station.

Another notable challenge discussed was the prevalence of myths surrounding electric vehicles (EVs). These misconceptions can impede the transition to cleaner air, hindering the adoption of environmentally friendly alternatives. National Highways reports show that EV charging infrastructure at motorway service areas is increasing, and a 2022-2023 update showed a decrease of 6% in road user emissions from 2021-2022 which was partially due to the uptake of electric vehicles, showing that the hinderance is starting to decrease.


While environmental awareness has surged, a tangible connection between individual actions and their impact on air quality remains elusive. The invisibility of air pollution makes it challenging to foster broad acceptance of the personal impacts of striving for net-zero emissions.


The importance of community-focused initiatives was emphasised as a catalyst for driving local changes. Additionally, there was a discussion on leveraging regulatory enforcement penalties to feed back into the community, reinforcing the importance of compliance.


Comparing pre-pandemic and pandemic-era data presents a challenge, as the significant disruption caused by the pandemic skews these comparisons, altering the perception of initiatives and the true challenges. Moreover, real-world data often differs from modelled data, potentially casting organizations in an unfavourable light when unexpected results surface.


The conversation veered towards traffic management as a viable solution for cleaner air, citing examples of how local authorities' interest is increasing in adopting such measures. However, resource constraints often impede the realisation of these ambitious plans.


In conclusion, the pursuit of cleaner air demands a multifaceted approach that navigates public perception, leverages community involvement, and grapples with the complexities of data accuracy and enforcement. Addressing these challenges requires a delicate balance between scientific precision, public engagement, and resource allocation, underscoring the intricate nature of ensuring clean air for all. Technology such as public-facing portals to leverage community and public support and raise awareness and in-depth air quality data analysis can help local authorities in their path towards clean air.


To find out more about how EarthSense can help the highways sector achieve cleaner air quality targets, please contact us.

[1]Highways UK Post-Event Report, Terrapin


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