On Thursday 24 March, the Royal Society will host a PolicyLab event to discuss two major and interconnected problems – poor air quality and climate change – and how policymakers can address them in an effective and integrated way.

The impact of poor air quality

The Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Paediatrics and Children’s Health recently published a report estimating that outdoor and indoor air pollution is causing 40,000 deaths per year in the UK, at an annual cost of £20 billion. This report adds to a growing weight of scientific evidence emphasising the impacts of poor air quality on public health, as well as its damaging effects on crops and ecosystems.

A growing cause for concern in the UK

The threat of poor air quality is becoming an increasingly high profile issue on both the public and political stage. Urban air pollution has been highlighted as major issue for the 2015 parliament. In April 2015, the UK received an order from the Supreme Court to cut emissions of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) after the UK’s failure to comply with EU pollution limits. This required Defra to publish a revised plan to tackle NO2 emissions in UK cities.

The issue of air quality has also been a focal point of debate surrounding both the planned expansion of Heathrow Airport and the upcoming London Mayoral election campaign. The recent controversy concerning Volkswagen emissions has also drawn considerable attention to the air pollution caused by road transport, particularly by diesel vehicles.

Poor air quality in London

Air quality and climate change

The problems of air quality and climate change are inherently linked. Indeed, it is established that pollutants associated with poor air quality on the one hand and greenhouse gas pollutants on the other typically result from similar sources. For example, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights a number of so-called short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), such as black carbon, methane and tropospheric ozone, which have both a warming effect on climate and a detrimental impact on air quality.

A warming planet could also have major implications for clean air in urban areas according to a 2014 Nature Climate Change study.

Discussing the issues

Tacking these connected problems will require cooperation between key stakeholders from academia, policy, industry and NGOs. The Royal Society PolicyLab event will feature a panel of speakers spanning across these sectors.

We will have insight from Professor Martin Williams, from King’s College London, Sarah Legge from Environmental Protection UK and Oliver Lord from the Greater London Authority. The event will be chaired by Professor David Fowler FRS, an environmental physicist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Edinburgh.

An integrated approach to a complex problem

It is widely acknowledged that reducing the emissions from key pollution sources – domestic, industrial, power generation, agricultural, road traffic etc – could have a ‘win-win’ or ‘two for the price of one’ effect of tackling poor air quality and climate change simultaneously. However, for many pollutants the picture is actually a lot more complex and uncertain, as the climatic impact of different pollutants may be dependent on their interactions with other pollutants and meteorological factors.

Furthermore, policy decisions taken to address one issue could have unintentional negative impacts on the other. For example, the flue gas desulphurisation in power stations can lead to an increase in CO2 emissions. Conversely, high levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in urban areas are often attributed to the large number of diesel vehicles; a number that has increased in the UK since diesel vehicles were incentivised, partly because of their low CO2 emissions and climate change mitigating potential.

Defra’s Air Quality Expert Group has discussed many of the issues concerning how to tackle the issues of air quality and climate change, stating that “an integrated approach to processes that occur in and that affect the atmosphere is essential if progress is to be made in limiting the impact of human activity on climate change and air quality”.

Assessing the best way forward

Defra’s work highlights the need for policymakers to carefully address these ‘trade-offs’ and for a joined up approach to climate change mitigation and air quality management to be implemented at international, national and local scales. The Royal Society PolicyLab event on March 24 will look to discuss how this can be best achieved.

Register here for ‘Clearing the air: how to tackle air quality and climate change?’