Tuesday, 24 Jan 2023  |  Reading time:  16 mins  | Read online

Air quality and pollution

In this week's Global Local, we look at how local governments can help improve air quality and reduce exposure to harmful pollutants.

Air pollution is the contamination of outdoor and indoor environments by pollutants that adversely affect our health or the environment. Most pollution stems from energy use and production, everything from industrial fossil fuel use to wood-burning in homes to keep warm during winter.

Air pollution remains a serious problem in much of the world, particularly in urban, agricultural and populated areas. The dire health and environmental impacts of poor air quality are well known: It kills more people globally than smoking (7 million premature deaths annually) and negatively impacts most aspects of our health, costing the global economy trillions in the process. Year by year, we learn more about the true extent and toll of dirty air. New figures, for example, reveal that polluted air affects 97% of UK homes, while evidence continues to mount that children are being harmed by poor air quality. According to another global study, close to a million stillbirths a year can be attributed to air pollution.

Most of the practices that lead to pollution and poor quality air also emit harmful emissions responsible for global warming. Pollution in the form of CO2 and methane raises the global temperature, which in turn exacerbates another form of air pollution, smog. Poor and marginalised communities are often left to bear the brunt of this cycle. Not only are they disproportionately impacted by the health impacts of poor air quality, but by the extreme weather and climate change made worse by pollution.

Understanding the impacts of air pollution, be it in health, housing, transport,. education, local economies, wellbeing and the environment, is vital for local governments. Nearly all local authorities now have air quality targets to meet, but there is no one measure that fits all local areas. Different factors will be behind why one municipality is struggling with pollution versus another, be it through high levels of household air pollution, road traffic issues, or geographical conditions. As such, councils are best placed to help reduce air pollution in their local area, as they can deliver different abatement initiatives specific to local characteristics. In this edition of Global Local, we examine many of those measures designed to cut down on pollutants, while also taking a look at the link between poor air quality and inequality, and how you can best inform your residents on pollution levels.

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This week's featured content

Fighting to breathe fresh, clean air: regulations, policy direction and citizens taking a stand

By Connor Smith, LGIU Associate

There are few winners on a planet where the air we depend upon is polluted and poor and marginalised communities are often impacted disproportionately.

Increasingly, citizens are taking a stand by refusing to remain quiet as the quality and length of their lives and that of their love ones continue to be put in jeopardy. In the UK, a landmark court-case recently ruled that air pollution contributed to the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. In France, a mother and daughter with respiratory issues recently sued the French State for failing to do enough to limit air pollution around Paris.

There are many actions summarised here that local government can take to improve air quality. Exemplars from around the world demonstrate a diversity of creative and innovative solutions. They also highlight the value of collaboration with citizen scientists and other non-state actors. At the same time, initiatives that lack support run the risk of public opposition, especially if they are perceived to exacerbate existing inequality.

Continued advancement of technological know-how to solve air quality issues requires political willpower and financial support to enable local authorities, communities and other non-state actors to drive change and make our air more breathable. This briefing is relevant to officers and members working in transport, community planning and sustainability.

LGIU Global Local Highlights


Air pollution and mental health: four ways to prevent a health crisis

Climate change is having a devastating impact on human health around the world, both in terms of physical and mental health conditions. This briefing examines four successful ways in which Local Authorities across Europe are addressing the issue of air pollution within their cities.

Global Local subscribers and LGIU members can read this briefing here.

Public health or private wealth? Exploring the link between air pollution and inequality

Travel, or lack of it, was a key topic of conversation during the pandemic, as Covid-19 led to a stark drop in levels of movement across the world. As a result, cities across the world saw a reduction of particulate pollution, even on their busiest streets. And in the months following strict lockdowns, one study found that air pollution remained relatively low. This briefing will examine if there are lessons we could learn from this time.

Global Local subscribers and LGIU members can read this briefing here.

Something in the air? Ensuring residents are informed about air pollution

Air pollution remains a serious problem in parts of the UK, with particular concern over levels of nitrogen dioxide. But how do people check the quality of air where they live? And is enough being done to highlight ways to improve it? This new briefing explores the issue.

Global Local subscribers and LGIU Members can read this briefing here.

How hydrogen can help councils improve air quality

Buta Atwal, Chief Executive of Wrightbus, the world's first hydrogen electric double decker bus, talks about the potential of hydrogen in helping the UK decarbonise public transport and public sector vehicles.

Click here to read this article, open to everyone.

Innovation & Inspiration

Curated case studies and news from around the globe

CHINA: Pilot sees city use big data to tackle pollution

Over a million people die in China each year due to poor outdoor air quality. To address this, in 2013 the Chinese Government launched its “war on pollution”. Part of this campaign saw improved coverage of federal air quality monitors, from 661 to 1,800, alongside the thousands of monitors managed by local government. To best use this data, a pilot has been launched in Cangzhou City, a polluted city of 7 million. The pilot combined multiple air quality data sources to help the city better enforce air quality regulations, including an unexpected tool – taxis. Taxicabs have been fitted with air quality monitors to “fill in the gaps” between fixed monitoring stations, providing feedback every 3 seconds. This automatically provides a bigger picture of pollution data and hotspots, which is then sent to enforcement officers via a mobile app. The system has seen success, with enforcement officers detecting 10 times more emission sources than previously. The pilot is also designed to be replicable by other cities around the world. 


COLUMBIA: Bogotá seeks to make pandemic pollution drop permanent

Like nearly all urban spaces, Bogotá saw a dramatic drop in its air pollution during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Realising the widespread benefit of this, the city government launched a series of initiatives to clean up its transport sector permanently. Transport, according to Mayor Claudia López, is responsible for 70% of Bogotá’s air pollution, leading the city to launch strict emissions standards on trucks and other high-emissions vehicles. The city has also commenced works on a fully electric metro rail system for its 8 million residents, and has built an additional 80km to its bicycle paths improve active travel options. Mayor López said the pandemic allowed the city to sped up a clean air agenda. 


SOUTH KOREA: State-of-the-art campaign against pollution underway in Seoul

Seoul has launched a campaign to tackle air pollution centred on emerging technology. 5G-enabled autonomous robots have been ‘visiting’ industrial complexes to monitor and measure air quality. These visits are more efficient and can reach more areas than standard factory inspectors. Elsewhere, the city has launched its first “wind path forest”, which sees trees planted closely along rivers and roads to absorb pollutant particles and channel cleaner, cooler air into the city centre. The city has transformed an abandoned viaduct above its main railway station into an “elevated” arboretum. 


EUROPE: Cities unite to find innovative ways to improve air quality

Six European cities, Bologna, Bottrop, Dublin, Guildford, Hasselt, and Vantaa, are participating in a three-year EU-funded research project to create innovations in tackling air quality. The iSCAPE project sought to reduce urban air pollution and its impact on climate change from two perspectives: Firstly, introducing passive control systems for air pollution, such as green walls and roofs, low boundary walls, more trees and hedgerows and photcatalytic coatings. Secondly, introducing actions designed to stimulate behavioural change, such as citizen involvement in pollution monitoring or choosing active transport. Introducing citizen involvement through low-cost monitoring kits helps demonstrate to the public that the interventions were working, and the low-cost nature-based interventions have since been implemented into the City of London’s Guidelines. The use of photocatalytic coatings is also planned for wide-scale deployment in Barcelona’s ports. 

European Commission

Think Tank Review

Our monthly Global Local Think Tank Review highlights key findings from leading think tanks and research institutes across the globe. This edition includes publications on climate change, skills gaps in the green economy, food insecurity, elections and democratic renewal, local media and digital inclusion. GL subscribers and LGIU members read it here.

Policy & Resources

Explainer: Air Pollution: Everything You Need to Know
This guide from the Natural Resources Defense Council answers everything you need to know on what air pollution is, how it affects the planet and our health, and how we can reduce it.

Report: Waiting for the Green Light: Sustainable Transport Solutions for Local Government
This report from the Climate Council, Australia identifies actions that local governments can take to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from transport, including setting strong transport emissions reduction targets, prioritising active transport, and discouraging car use in urban settings.

Case study: The Breathe London Community Programme
Breathe London is a new community air quality sensing project sponsored by the Mayor of London and Bloomberg. The project sees solar powered nodes given to groups and individuals with the best ideas to monitor and improve air quality in their area. Data collected in the scheme is then checked by Imperial College scientists.

Toolkit: Local government air quality toolkit
This toolkit released by the New South Wales EPA sets out information and guidance on how local government can address common air quality issues. It covers the sources and impacts of air pollution, a regulatory framework for protecting air quality, and pollution management technologies.

Report: The Active Last Mile: how can we boost out-of-home deliveries?
This report examines how people can be persuaded to pick up their home deliveries on foot or via active transport. Making the switch to 'Click & Collect' can reduce the environmental impact of online shopping, and contribute to better air quality. It advocates more collection points and online nudges to remind shoppers of the more environmental choice.

Study: Rural air pollution may be as hazardous as urban
This research challenges a common misconception that urban areas experience more toxic air pollution than rural ones. This, according to the study, is in part due to summertime agricultural activity that can produce pollution just as toxic as that found in urban areas.

Call for case studies!

Our Global Local bulletin highlights local solutions to global challenges, with a different theme each week offering critical insights, policy suggestions and case studies. We love hearing what our subscribers are up to, and the successes and challenges they’ve experienced in policy or projects.

As such, we’re looking for your insights on our upcoming editions. If you can tell us about these topics, please get in touch and we can help you craft an effective case study.

Nordic spotlight.

Technology and social care.

Young people and democracy.

International Women's Day.

Risk management and extreme events.

Maternity and infant care and family support.

Click here for more detail.

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Next week, we’ll be casting a spotlight on all things Nordic local government.

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