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Greenhouse gases in Glasgow’s air to be monitored in real-time

M8 Motorway at dusk showing trails of rear car lights

A network of sensors installed across Glasgow schools will monitor levels of the greenhouse gas (GHG) carbon dioxide (CO2) in the city’s air, which contributes to climate change.

The network of 25 sensors will be installed by scientists from the University of Strathclyde as part of a trial to provide Glasgow City Council, for the first time, with real-time information on emissions of CO2 and various noxious gases in the city’s air.

Providing city leaders with real-time information would allow them to see the near-immediate impact of their policy decisions and help them to measure progress against the city’s target to become carbon neutral by 2030.

Global cities

The trial is being undertaken as part of the Global Environmental Monitoring and Measurement (GEMM) project, a collaboration between the University of Strathclyde, Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley), The Optical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the Met Office and the National Physical Laboratory.

Early results of the monitoring will be shared with the leaders of other global cities at a virtual conference in November, and will be presented at the COP26 environmental summit, now scheduled to take place in Glasgow next year, to encourage other cities to set up their own sensor networks.

Glasgow City Council already monitors air pollution levels across the city for a range of common pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5). These are the main pollutants of concern in Glasgow, with the primary source being road traffic, especially in busy city centre streets such as Hope Street.

This monitoring is conducted as part of the Council’s statutory obligations on air quality and does not include CO2. Data on CO2 levels in the city are based on historic consumption of fuels for traffic, power and so on, and is only made available by the UK Government two years in arrears.

A dense network of sensors will provide a more detailed picture of where atmospheric CO2 is being produced at source, allowing for more nuanced decision-making on climate change policies.

The sensors will also track levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and PM2.5.The additional measurements will support identification of specific sources of CO2.

Professor Allister Ferguson, University of Strathclyde and co-lead of the project, said: “As the climate changes rapidly, public and private decision-makers around the world are facing an ever-increasing need for more accurate environmental data, improved measurements, and forecasting models to predict the future course of the environment and, where possible, develop strategies to adapt to or mitigate these environmental and climate-change caused disruptions.

“Developing and deploying new, low-cost and improved measurement instruments in dense networks can provide more precise data and greatly improved models for appropriate and effective government policies and better evaluation of the risks of public and private investments.”

Informed decisions

Co-lead Dr Thomas Baer, Director of Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University and a Visiting Professor at Strathclyde, said: “While efforts to reduce GHG emissions have made great strides, particularly when it comes to electricity generation, heating and transport remain two challenging areas.

"Being able to monitor in real-time the GHG emissions caused predominately by traffic, policymakers will be able to make informed decisions and see near-immediate results.”

It is hoped that by demonstrating the effectiveness of the Glasgow network city leaders will retain and expand it as a permanent legacy of the COP26 summit. Glasgow is already part of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a collaboration of global cities working to cut GHG emissions by 80-100% by 2050 or sooner.

By installing the sensors on a mixture of primary and secondary schools the scientists leading the project hope to engage with pupils on issues around pollution and the science involved in air quality monitoring, with a PhD student assigned to each school.

Glasgow City Council Leader Susan Aitken said: “When we agreed to host COP26, we knew there would be opportunities to learn from climate specialists around the world and so help Glasgow’s own response to the climate emergency.

Getting involved in the GEMM project is exactly the kind of collaboration that we hoped for and can help us reach our goal of becoming a net zero city.

“Not only will GEMM help to inspire pupils across Glasgow and give them a deeper, more detailed understanding of what remains an issue of critical importance for our younger people.

“But GEMM can also let us know exactly where we stand as a city on carbon emissions at any one time and get us over the hurdle of always working with retrospective data.

“Having access to reliable, real time information on the city’s carbon emissions can become a vital part of the decision making that shapes a sustainable future for Glasgow.”

A similar network has been operating in the San Francisco area, through Professor Ron Cohen at UC Berkeley who has developed the sensors, for nearly 10 years. That network, of 70 sensors, has been able to track the reduction in CO2 and noxious gases emitted by traffic following the COVID-19 lockdown in California.

Professor Cohen said: “During these times when we see the predictive power of data being used in real time to prevent the worst COVID outcomes, it makes sense to be equipping ourselves with observations that will help manage the equally challenging task of managing the climate.

“We look forward to providing the observations that will help Glasgow manage its contributions to greenhouse gas reductions in a manner that can be a model for every city on the planet.”