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Yes, here we are again. I'm Anthony Day, this is the Sustainable Futures Report and it's Friday. Friday, 9 November 2018.
Recently we’ve spoken at length about plastic. We’ve spoken about climate change. But there’s something in the air; in fact there's a lot more in the air than there should be. This week’s episode is about air quality, the third big area that needs cleaning up.
Before I start, let me first welcome listeners new and old and especially my patrons who support the Sustainable Futures Report via patreon.com/SFR. Thank you for your support and thank you for your feedback and ideas. I've come across comments in all sorts of places because apparently this podcast this distributed by websites I've never heard of, in addition to iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify and SoundCloud. Feedback and ideas are always most welcome. I want to make the Sustainable Futures Report something that you want to listen to, because if I don’t, you won’t, which will rather defeat the purpose of doing this.
Air quality and the atmosphere
Let's start with some good news. The United Nations reports that the ozone layer is healing. You'll remember that the ozone layer surrounds the earth high up in the atmosphere. Its shields the earth from ultraviolet rays which can damage crops and cause skin cancers. The hole in the ozone layer was first noticed over New Zealand in 1976 and traced to the use of chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerators and aerosol sprays. The Montréal protocol banning the use of these chemicals was signed by all countries in the world, followed by the London Amendment and the forthcoming Kigali Amendment which extended the range of banned chemicals. As a result, the holes in the ozone layer, which extended to both the North and the South hemispheres, are gradually closing.
“The Montreal Protocol is one of the most successful multilateral agreements in history for a reason,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment. “The careful mix of authoritative science and collaborative action that has defined the Protocol for more than 30 years and was set to heal our ozone layer is precisely why the Kigali Amendment holds such promise for climate action in future.”
At projected rates, Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone is scheduled to heal completely by the 2030s, followed by the Southern Hemisphere in the 2050s and polar regions by 2060.
As Solheim says, if the whole international community can act together to meet a challenge such as ozone depletion there is hope for concerted action on climate change.
Back to air quality. The Guardian this week published a major article describing air pollution as a public health emergency.
Air pollution is caused by gases and by microparticles. We spoke about microparticles of plastic in the ocean last week, and how they are getting into the food chain and into our bodies. PM2.5s, fragments with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, are carried in the air and breathed in. These particles can be made of black carbon, nitrates, sulphates, ammonia or mineral dust. Most are produced by burning fossil fuels or wood, for driving, heating, power plants and industry.
Different types of pollution may have different effects. High levels of nitrogen dioxide, mainly emitted by diesel engines, lead to considerably faster weight gain in later years if young people are around the fumes in their first year of life, according to a study by the University of Southern California.
It found children living on or near busy main roads in the first year of their life were almost a kilogramme heavier by the age of 10 than those with low exposure.
Exposure to nitrogen dioxide can also lead to respiratory problems, like inflammation of the airway and can also worsen symptoms among those with asthma. Although the research did not examine the mechanics behind the effect air pollution has on childhood obesity, chief investigator Jennifer Kim from the University of Southern California spoke about pollutants causing inflammation being the possible explanation, saying, “The most common thought is inflammation of body systems like the lungs which may spill over into the entire body, including the brain which regulates appetite and changes in fat metabolism.”
Other health consequences have been exposed. EurekAlert reports that a study of children in Shanghai, from birth to three years, found that exposure to fine particles (PM2.5) from vehicle exhausts, industrial emissions and other sources of outdoor pollution increased the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by up to 78%. The study included 124 ASD children and 1240 healthy children (as control) in stages over a nine-year period, examining the association between air pollution and ASD.
The United Nations Environment Programme has linked air pollution to a “huge” negative effect on cognitive intelligence – especially amongst older men.
Research was undertaken by scientists at Peking University in Beijing, China and Yale University in the U.S. and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. In particular, it found that long-term exposure to air pollution may impede overall cognitive performance.
The scientists concluded that, “The damage on the ageing brain by air pollution likely imposes substantial health and economic costs, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly for both running daily errands and making high-stake decisions.” Given this damaging effect of air pollution on cognition, particularly on the ageing brain, “the study implies that the indirect effect on social welfare could be much larger than previously thought.”
“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” Yale School of Public Health's Professor Xi Chen, one of the report's authors, said in an interview published in The Guardian.
The study also suggests that air pollution increases the risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
It becomes clear why The Guardian calls air pollution a public health emergency.
PTV News, the official media of the Philippines, reported on the first ever WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution in Geneva. Statistics that came out at the conference include:
- 25% of all heart disease deaths are attributable to air pollution
- There are 4.2 million deaths every year as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution
- There are 3.8 million deaths every year as a result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuels.
- 91% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits
Some people in developing countries study by the light of a kerosene lantern, which pollutes the atmosphere within the home. Charities like https://solar-aid.org provide solar-powered lanterns to overcome this: no smoke and no fuel costs either.
We’re All in it…
91%. This is particularly worrying because it means that both developed and developing countries are affected. For example, 30 cities in the UK exceed WHO limits of 10 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre of air. Worst is Scunthorpe, with 15, and the list includes Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, York, Sheffield, London and strangely Gibraltar. Wood-burning stoves are popular and seen by many as very green. After all, isn’t the CO2 released by burning mopped up by growing new trees? Maybe so, although it could take years to replace the logs you burn in an afternoon. More important is the statistic quoted by the Economist newspaper, that particulates from such stoves account for 38% of the UK total, more than twice the amount emitted by vehicles. If your stove is a feature and not your main source of heat, keep it for special occasions and always make sure the wood is properly dried. If your stove is all the heating you’ve got, consider replacing it with a more modern more efficient model, so you can get the maximum heat with minimum cost and minimum pollution.
…But some much more than others
While pollution in the UK has undoubted health consequences - 40,000 people are believed to die prematurely each year as the result of exposure to air pollution - these levels are trivial by contrast with those found in other parts of the world. India, for example, has nearly half of the 50 most polluted cities in the world. While Scunthorpe scores top for the UK at 15 micrograms, Delhi comes in at 292, but Allahabad is recorded at 317 and India has six other cities over 200. The most polluted city in the world is Peshawar in Pakistan at 540. Once again we see the developing world suffering the worst consequences, as with climate change and with plastic pollution.
The Daily Mirror reports that people in the UK are seriously concerned about air pollution, although this is really an article to promote the Hyundai Nexo, a hydrogen powered car. Like the bus that I reported on a couple of weeks ago, this car takes in air and cleans it up, removing the PM 2.5's and PM10’s. “When driven for one hour”, they say, “26.9 kilograms of air is purified – the same amount 42 adults breathe in an hour.”
It's a hydrogen car with no carbon footprint in use and it can be filled up in five minutes like a petrol car, so no delays or range anxiety that you might get with an electric car. However, the Hyundai Nexo costs £65,000 and there are only 11 hydrogen refuelling stations accessible to the public in the whole of the United Kingdom. And, as I’ve mentioned before, if the hydrogen is produced by splitting it from natural gas it releases CO2, so the car may be clean but the fuel production process may not be. Let me also quote from James Spencer of Portland Fuels:
“But what about the UK infrastructure needed to meet current road fuel requirements [from hydrogen]?
“50bn litres annually are supplied via 6 refineries, 8 import terminals, 4 rail-loading facilities, 6,350 miles of pipelines, 20 inland depots, 30,000 petrol tankers, 8,500 forecourts and 140,000 dispensing nozzles…
All needs to be converted to a Hydrogen supply chain – good luck with that…”
German company Hawa Dawa (which means air medicine in a number of languages) is using artificial intelligence and the internet of things to interpret urban pollution data from sensors across a city. This allows pollution hotspots to be identified, and monitored as they change throughout the day, so that clean-up measures can be concentrated in the most important areas. The system can map the city and show which locations should be chosen - or avoided - for schools, hospitals or health centres.
In India The Economic Times reports that a Delhi-based start-up has designed a 40-feet-tall purifier which it claims could provide clean air to 75,000 people living in the three-kilometre radius around it. Kurin Systems has recently got the patent for the "world's largest as well as the strongest air purifier”. The purifier, which Kurin calls the 'City Cleaner' measures 40 feet in height and 20 feet on each side. It will have the capacity to clean 32 million cubic metres of air per day, its makers said.
The device will be able to take in air from all 360-degree angles and generate 1,300,000 cubic metres of clean air per hour. The air will be purified by using the H14 grade highly effective particulate arrestance (HEPA) filter which can clean up to 99.99 per cent of the particulate matter present in the air in conjunction with a pre-filter and activated carbon.
The mammoth purifier will have 48 fans to keep the flow of clean air going. The device will run on energy generated via solar panels and will be made with materials sourced locally.
Stop it now!
Hydrogen cars, air-cleaning buses, artificial intelligence and purifying towers will never be a total solution to the air pollution problem. Pollution needs to be stopped at source. Many consumer goods bought in the West are manufactured in developing nations. They are cheaper because wages are lower, safety standards are frequently lower and environmental controls are looser or non-existent. We in the West must recognise responsibility at least in part for the smogs in India, China and Southeast Asia.
At the WHO
In his closing address to the WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution in Geneva, Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus set out a target of reducing the number of deaths from air pollution by two-thirds by 2030 and listed five actions that the WHO itself would take:
- Ensuring clean energy in health facilities everywhere. Access to reliable and clean energy and on-site renewable energy generation in health facilities is essential to achieving the goal of universal health coverage.
- WHO will establish a new multi-stakeholder Global Energy-Health Platform of Action to achieve SDG 3 on health and SDG 7 on energy, starting with a focus on clean cooking.
- Harness the power of health workers to be agents of change. Health workers are the ones who see the consequences of air pollution first-hand. “We are committed”, he said, “to equipping them with the capacity and tools to educate their patients and decision-makers about the health effects of air pollution, and to have their say in shaping policies to reduce it.”
- WHO needs to scale up its Air Pollution programme. To strengthen countries´ capacity to address air pollution and related health risks, it needs increased human and financial resources to support the WHO Global Platform on Air pollution and Health.
- Strong institutional mechanisms are needed. WHO will explore how to use its influence to establish or reinforce new international mechanisms for air pollution control in order to protect people’s health.
The conference heard more than 70 commitments from countries, cities, UN organisations, intergovernmental organisations and civil society to tackle air pollution, or to contribute to the global battle.
The ozone story demonstrates that when nations reach a global consensus on a planetary crisis they can work together to achieve great things. We need to do everything we can to urge governments and organisations to engage in the same way with the challenges of plastic pollution, breathable air and climate change.
In the UK
In the UK, legal firm Client Earth has repeatedly and successfully challenged the government for allowing legal limits on air quality across the country to be breached. It supports a group of parents which has called on the UK government to release funding for emergency measures to clean up illegal levels of air pollution around schools and nurseries across the country.
The National Clean Air for Children Programme was launched at a parliamentary reception with more than 60 MPs, including former Labour leader Ed Miliband and ex-Conservative cabinet minister Maria Miller.
The programme, which calls for £153m of funding, was drawn up by the Clean Air Parents’ Network, which is supported by environmental law organisation ClientEarth and the British Lung Foundation.
It also has the backing of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), the National Education Union and Asthma UK among others.
Free Competition - win £5m!
This week the government announced a £5 million competition inviting ideas to reduce the cause of vehicle emissions, minimise the amount of particulates produced and improve air quality.
This is a Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) competition that is being run in 2 phases.
Up to 6 projects can get funded contracts for feasibility studies in the first phase, where there is up to £300,000 available. The best projects will be invited to apply to a second phase, worth £4.5 million, to take their ideas further, develop a prototype and test its effectiveness. Organisations of any size can apply. Find the link on the blog.
When I started researching air-quality for this article I was thinking of gases - gases like CO2, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide. They clearly all play a role, but the big story is particulates, the microparticles which we all breathe in with every breath. These are so tiny that they can cross the barrier of the lungs and get directly into the bloodstream. They are made of all sorts of different compounds and materials and have effects on the body which we don't yet understand. Current levels of air pollution are much higher than they were, so children growing up now have a much higher exposure than those of us born in the last century. Even so, as we have seen, older people can suffer consequences, including dulling of the intellect and reduced intelligence. We don't yet know what the cumulative effect or the consequences will be for the children growing up now, in their later lives. Researchers have identified delayed intellectual development, a likely link with obesity and the possibility that air pollution is a contributing factor to both autism and dementia.
The other surprise to me was the vast difference between levels of pollution in the developed nations and the levels in the developing nations. Remember, the top score in the UK was 15 microgrammes of particles in a cubic metre of air. The world average is over 70 and the world’s most polluted city comes in at over 500. That third world pollution is driven to a large extent by us as consumers. To those who oppose foreign aid and say we should spend only on ourselves, I would respond that we owe a debt to these distant manufacturing countries. Any assistance which we can provide to them as foreign aid in the form of expertise to help them clean up their pollution is of benefit to us all.
What can we do to improve the situation? It’s easy to say drive less, fly less, eat less, buy less - oh, and don’t use your wood-burning stove. In practical terms we all have established lifestyles and we do most things with a purpose. It’s difficult to make radical changes. What you can do is recognise that driving, flying, food production and manufacturing all have an effect on air quality, and on climate change. Take a moment to think if there are things you could do differently. If the opportunity arises tell your MP or your local councillor what they should be doing to tackle air pollution. Maybe they should ban things or maybe they should incentivise other things. Whatever: something needs to be done.
And next week?
Well, that's about it for another week. Other things have been happening on the climate front but I'm going to have to carry them over to next week.
Thank you for listening, especially for getting this far. You're probably a patron but of course if you're not and you'd like to be and to give some support to the Sustainable Futures Report you’d be more than welcome. Pop across to patreon.com/SFR where you'll find all the details.
Just as a taster, some of the items I have on my list for next time include a plastic ban in Kenya, a rosy future for North Sea oil, a lower ozone layer, taxing meat, and electric mushrooms. Till then
I'm Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report .
Bye for now.