A new report by the UK-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) calls for urgent action to tackle the damage to health caused by air pollution. Health problems range from slowing the proper development of children’s lungs through to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases among the elderly. A 2016 report by the Royal College of Physicians put the annual deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution in the UK at around 40,000.
Broadly, the report calls for the creation of a modern Clean Air Act that takes a holistic approach—i.e., not just targeting individual sectors, but encouraging everyone to play a role in reducing emissions. The original Clean Air Act of 1956 focused on tackling smoke and sulfur dioxide in the wake of the five-day Great Smog event that was directly linked to the deaths of more than 4,000 Londoners.
The IMechE report makes a number of recommendations, including for the introduction of a coherent national scheme to monitor emissions from different modes of transport so that informed targets can be set, and for incentives to be introduced to encourage freight deliveries outside of peak hours. The report also contests that bi-mode trains do not produce the same benefits for passengers as an electrified train network and calls for Government to work with Network Rail to deliver the complete electrification of the main rail lines between Britain’s principal cities and ports.
IMechE says that the new Clean Air Act needs to set out ways to help the 71% of local authorities which missed their 2017 air quality targets. It must also have a broad scope which addresses emissions from across all the UK’s transport modes. The UK must take assess emerging technologies for carbon emissions throughout the technology’s entire lifecycle, including the procurement of parts and fuel.
Part of the problem is that climate change and air pollution are not talked about in the same circles. However, they are both challenges that the UK needs to overcome, as they are both damaging to our health and the environment. It is important that we calculate and monitor all our emissions, recording those responsible for climate change, eg greenhouse gases (GHG), and air quality, eg particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).—IMechE report “A Breath of Fresh Air”
Electric vehicles, which produce lower emissions, encounter challenges both at the start of production of their battery cells and at the end of life, owing to issues such as the economic viability of battery recycling.
Individuals breathe in 20kg of air every day and because we can’t see it, we don’t know about the harmful particles it contains. Regular commuters encounter air pollution twice a day up to 250 days a year. Even railway stations have relatively high levels of air pollution from diesel. Major railway stations with high numbers of diesel-operated trains include London Marylebone, Birmingham (New Street and Snow Hill), Manchester (Piccadilly and Victoria), Liverpool Lime Street, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol Temple Meads and Cardiff (Central and Queen Street).
While much of the media focus is on our capital, it is worth noting that this is a serious problem that affects us all. Different communities will require their own solutions; for example, in cities outside London the proportion of public transport is lower, so the proportion of emissions from diesel and petrol cars is greater. In Manchester, 43% of emissions come from cars and just 11% from buses.
Technology has its part to play in addressing the problem, but there is a role and responsibility for individuals too. Back in the 1950s, doctors kick-started a national movement on the risks of smoking; there is a need to start doing the same with air quality, to encourage people to drive less and use public transport, walk and cycle more.—Philippa Oldham, lead author
The “Breath of fresh air: new solutions to reduce transport emissions” report recommends that:
Government introduce a national monitoring system, across the different types of transport, recording all types of pollution, to create a coherent picture against which national targets can be set.
Government to incentive cleaner technologies and encourage the phase-out of legacy vehicles with poor emissions record across the network, for example diesel cars and trains.
Government to consider incentivizing freight and logistic operators to make deliveries outside peak hours.
Conduct a series of trials on existing diesel railway rolling stock, new bi-mode trains and in major stations, to understand the level and effect of exposure to pollutants has on commuters and railway workers.
Conduct a series of trials to understand the impact on the individual of exposure to pollutants in overground and underground railway stations, ports, airports and bus stations.
Create a positive and dynamic campaign that informs the public of the health benefits of switching to lower-emission modes of transport.
Work with Network Rail to deliver the complete electrification of the main rail lines between Britain’s principal cities and ports and in major urban rail networks.
Fund research through the Clean Air Fund and Innovate UK to create programs to clean up various transport modes.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers was established in 1847. Headquartered in London, it has operations around the world and more than 120,000 members in more than 140 countries working in industries such as the automotive, rail, aerospace, medical, power and construction.