UK universities team up for clean air and better public health

Sky Filled With Clouds

Transport is the largest contributor to UK domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, responsible for 27% of emissions in 2019 (BEIS; 2021). Against the backdrop of an escalating climate emergency, the race to net zero is at the forefront of climate agendas and a core point of discussion at this year’s United Nations COP26 conference.

However, the road to net zero isn’t a straightforward one – particularly for public health. For instance, while the uptake of diesel vehicles in the early 2000’s was intended to reduce carbon emissions, it actually led to increased levels of nitrogen dioxide - a harmful gas for the human respiratory system.

‘Similarly, the current UK policy focus on encouraging wider uptake of heavier electric vehicles potentially risks an increase in ‘non-exhaust emissions’ generated from tyre, brake wear and road dust’

- Dr Suzanne Bartington, Clinical Research Fellow and Honorary Consultant in Public Health at the University of Birmingham.

While there’s significant focus on the race to net zero and decarbonising transport, where does this leave clean air and public health concerns?

Through its TRANSITION Clean Air Network, the University of Birmingham, UK, is finding out just that. Involving nine UK universities and over 20 cross-sector partners, the TRANSITION project taps into the power of cross-sector, interdisciplinary collaboration to understand how changing travel behaviours and transport services impact clean air and carbon emissions.

The project makes the case for equitable access to affordable public transport and routes for active travel, as well as technological innovation to reduce vehicle emissions, to help protect public health, specifically among those people most vulnerable to air pollution. While TRANSITION is one of six UK Clean Air Networks funded by the UK Research and Innovation Strategic Priorities Clean Air Programme, it’s the only one to focus on transport.

Shifting attitudes and behaviours in transport

‘When we think into sustainable transport, the design of the built environment is as important as the design of vehicles in ‘A Chain of Consequences for Clean Air

- Dr James Levine, TRANSITION’s Innovation Network Manager and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

The project advocates for a behavioural shift, not only a shift to different transport technologies, such as electric and autonomous vehicles.

‘Transport is as much about people, and their access to transport services (i.e., mobility) as it is about innovation and technology. It is by making these major changes and shifting social norms in transport trends that the greatest gains may be made for public health and quality of life of citizens,’ Suzanne explains.

By connecting key players across sectors, the network is responsible for pioneering new research, enabling the identification of solutions, and sharing existing and new best practice, including:

  • Organising workshops, for example: in collaboration with ANTICIPATE - a Natural Environment Research Council funded project - to support COVID-19 recovery at the Department for Transport; and co-organising with Create Streets a ‘Breathe Free’ webinar addressing the question, ‘How can we clean the air in Britain’s towns and cities?’
  • Holding public webinars, for example on the themes of: ‘Clean Air for All - COVID-19, Clean Air and Mobility’; and 'What do we know about in-vehicle air quality?

Effecting change at local, regional, and national levels

The considerations feature in local, regional and national transport decarbonisation policies.

During the first year of the network, the University of Birmingham ran a Clean Air session within the UK100 International Net Zero Local Leadership Summit and Conference. This session explored the transport decarbonisation priorities included in a Local leadership Communique joint statement by Metropolitan Mayors.

They are also working closely with the West Midlands Combined Authority to shape regional clean air policy, as well as Oxfordshire County Council in local government.

‘Ultimately it is essential that clean air is considered in its own right within the climate dialogue and arising policy actions – our network will be successful if this is the case at local, regional and national levels. Further, it is essential the wider general public understand the impacts of poor air quality – and that this is a major health issue which affects all our daily lives,’ Suzanne shares.

Looking to the future, the network plans to equip local authorities with intel on topics such as exposure to air pollution through different transport modes; barriers to active travel and modal shift; planning for clean air and public health; reducing non-exhaust emissions; taxi licensing for air quality and health; and e-bikes and e-scooters to see whether they are a step forwards or backwards for clean air and public health.

At the heart of this project is the inclusion of different sectors and interdisciplinary collaboration. TRANSITION calls for local, regional and national policies to reflect and reference the advice of independent experts – such as those engaged in the network – to support a holistic approach for cleaner air and net-zero carbon emissions.  ‘We need to work together – at the intersect of human behaviour, technology and policy – to deliver equitable, sustainable mobility for all, for the benefit of both clean air and climate action’, Suzanne enthuses.

You can find out more about the project here.