An Integrated Study of AIR Pollution PROcesses in Beijing (AIRPRO)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Chemistry


Air pollution is well established as having major negative impacts on human well-being, vegetation and general quality of life. Whilst the exact biological pathways and mechanisms for health impacts remain to be established, there is ample evidence to demonstrate that months to many years of life expectancy can be lost through exposure to air pollution outside. Those negative impacts are currently disproportionately experienced by those in living the world's largest cities and in rapidly developing economies.

The basic causes of air pollution are understood; the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity, transport, cooking and heating, emissions from agriculture, from resource extraction, dust and so on, all play a part. Over the past two centuries economic expansion has always been closely tied to transition periods of increased air pollution and negative social and health outcomes. A key global challenge for the 21st century is to create a framework - scientific, regulatory, and technological - which enables economic development, with increases in individual prosperity and quality of life, without damaging air pollution as a side effect.

Many of the processes associated with air pollution are non-linear in nature however, and the extremely complex composition of air, as both gases and particles, can make it very difficult to establish direct cause-and-effect. Pollutants often interact with one another in unexpected ways that can create negative unintended consequences from superficially reasonable policy interventions. This is a key area where scientific understanding remains incomplete. The inability to fully describe the chemistry and physics of the urban atmosphere limits society's ability to create effective solutions that work, and that do not conflict with wider developmental and economic goals. This project tackles some of the key uncertainties that remain in urban air processes, including how polluting chemicals are transformed or oxidised in the atmosphere, how gases and particles interact, how pollution is dispersed by weather, how remote emissions from outside the city impacts on urban populations and how the presence of pollution itself may affect feedback and alter on meteorology in cities. The project focuses its study on three key types of harmful air pollution: particulate matter (referred to as PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and ozone O3.

The project is a collaboration between ten UK Universities, three leading Chinese research institutes, all part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Peking University and three UK partner research organisations (CERC, NPL, Met Office). The project centre-piece are two periods of intensive observations in the centre of Beijing, in the contrasting atmospheric conditions of winter and summer. The experiments will make measurements at the surface, and in the vertical using a unique 1000ft meteorological tower. These experiments will generate a complex and multiparameter dataset that can challenge state of the art computer models of urban pollution. By challenging models with detailed data, their capabilities can be assessed and their weaknesses and failings identified, and then targeted for improvement. This is vital since the pathway to achieving better air quality is through policy that is underpinned by scientific understanding, and in air pollution science, that understanding is encapsulated in these computer models. The project will use state of the art models from the UK and from China, and develop methods to generate very high spatial resolution estimates of pollution at the surface, a type of data that is essential when studying the health effects of pollution, or evaluating how successful a future policy might be.

Planned Impact

Impact summary:

Air pollution is a high profile and fully globalised phenomena with a complex web of interested parties, influencers and decision-makers and academic researcher hold a key role as highly credible influencers. The public profile of air pollution is currently very high, both in China and the UK, and this provides opportunities for potential engagement with the public on the underlying science, and also potentially with a range of other organisations, for example NGOs, for which air pollution may be one of many environmental issues of interest. We identify that as a key influencer in the field, a key focus of efforts for impact should be through engagement with decision makers, accepting that there is rarely a direct route between a new science finding and an immediate change in public policy. The timescales are long, and the evidence typically accumulative, nonetheless the PIs have a track record of successful engagement in the UK and at a European level.

This pathway to impact plan relates specifically to the UK participants in the AIRPRO consortium and we are realistic about the extent to which UK universities can expect to engage with overseas decision-makers and directly influence Chinese Government policy. In this particular case our role as an influencer and by extension our route to impact must naturally must flow via our Chinese collaborators.

We identify three specific key impact areas for AIRPRO:
[1] Public understanding of the science and impacts of urban air pollution
[2] Supporting Chinese collaborators in their role as influencers of policy and practice in Beijing and China
[3] Translating AIRPRO science to megacities in a development context

[1] Many in the consortium are active in the public engagement arena, with media appearances, high profile science events as well as school visits and production of outreach materials. This work is ongoing and enduring and we identify that the most effective role for AIRPRO is to provide new basic materials for these existing bottom up and PI-led initiates. This will be a pooled effort, with the best in new visual aids, photographs, graphics, videos, images and model animations shared on the project website and via social media mechanisms.

[2] WP7 provides a ready-made route to impact via the development and improvement of models such as NAQPMS and NICAM-Chem used in China for air pollution prediction. These leading edge models are a central mechanism by which latest science understanding is translated to operational agencies and to decision makers on policy. WP7 can therefore be thought of as being a fundamental part of the pathway to impact for the project. We have assembled a large team of leading investigators to support its delivery and this should be viewed as a substantial investment in the pathway to impact. Our Chinese collaborators provide the next steps in delivery of impact through the application of these models in their research programmes and in their advice to Government. We will also work with our Chinese partners in their engagement with local ministries and agency, through the creation of effective science summaries for specialists and targeted presentations in China for policy-makers

[3] Many of the underlying causes of air pollution in Beijing can be found in other developing cities, and much of the science and capability developed may have potential for translation to other locations. We will specifically target overseas development agencies such as DfID and key aid and policy organisations to highlight the state of the science and how this may be used to help countries identify the most effective areas for intervention. We identify some major impact opportunities that may be developed through raising awareness of practical public health improvements afforded by engagement with air pollution issues, and strong synergies with Newton Fund objectives.


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