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Category: Behind the science

Measuring the air we breathe

What's this about?

Dr Salim Alam (pictured) is measuring changes in the air we breathe due to shifts in human activities and climate change itself. These measurements can identify the sources of air pollution which affect human and environmental health. Many sources contribute to air pollution and to carbon emissions - our work helps identify clean air policy win-wins that can protect local health and reduce climate change.

Dr Alam measuring air pollution at the Birmingham Air Quality Supersite

More detail about the research

Air pollution is a key environmental health challenge, responsible for ca. 34,000 excess deaths in the UK each year, and over 7m globally. The composition of the air we breathe is changing due to shifts in activity, long-term policies (e.g. net-zero actions), changes in vehicle technology, and shifts in our behaviour, for example, the increasing importance of domestic emissions from cleaning and personal hygiene products.

Detailed measurements of air pollution help track these changes, and identify and quantify pollution sources, enabling effective policies for their control. The Birmingham Air Quality Supersite (BAQS) is one of three UKRI-funded urban air quality supersites in the UK, used to gather detailed real-time data on gases and particles in our air. BAQS data is being used in the NERC-funded WM-Air project (Clean Air Science for the West Midlands) to apply world-leading atmospheric science expertise in support of air quality and carbon policy across the West Midlands.

Data from BAQS explored the impact of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown on air quality, taking advantage of this unique natural experiment. Direct observations showed big reductions in nitrogen dioxide gas (NO2) but also increases in fine particles (PM2.5). Deweathering techniques were applied to remove the influence of the weather revealing ca. 30% reductions in local road traffic emissions, but also the impact of pollution transported from Europe.

There is a significant overlap between sources of carbon (driving climate change) and sources of air pollutants (such as NO2 and PM2.5) especially combustion in transport, power generation and heating. Measures to reduce emissions from such sources are policy win-wins cleaner air with lower CO2 and lower air pollutant emissions.

However, the air pollution benefits are local/regional, while the carbon benefits are global so local action delivers local air quality improvements and health benefits for local people. Measurements from air quality stations like BAQS help demonstrate and evidence this direct, local and tangible air pollution/health benefit from climate action in our towns and cities.

Entrant: William Bloss , University of Birmingham

Copyright: University of Birmingham

Funding: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC); Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Collaborators: Dr Salim Alam; Prof Zongbo Shi; Dr Congbo Song; Prof Lee Chapman; Nicole Cowell; Daniel Rooney; Prof Roy Harrison (University of Birmingham); Birmingham City Council.


Clean Air Science for the West Midlands: