Industrialised, and rapidly developing cities, are faced with an invisible killer. Whilst, on the whole, the developed West (and particularly in Europe) environmental regulations have made a significant impact in controlling and reducing emissions of pollutants to the air, cities continue to suffer from the emissions of nitrous oxide, particulate matter and even sulphur and ozone, as a result of road traffic. Not all traffic though. Only traffic that happens to be fuelled with fossil fuels and, in particular, diesel.
A recent report ‘Public Health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom’ (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es2040416) states ‘Combustion emissions are a major contributor to degradation of air quality and pose a risk to human health. We evaluate and apply a multiscale air quality modeling system to assess the impact of combustion emissions on UK air quality. Epidemiological evidence is used to quantitatively relate PM2.5 exposure to risk of early death. We find that UK combustion emissions cause 13,000 premature deaths in the UK per year, while an additional 6000 deaths in the UK are caused by non-UK European Union (EU) combustion emissions.
This isn’t the only study saying this – there’s significant amounts of academic research from a range of disciplines being undertaken worldwide, looking at the causes and effects of poor air quality. Simply, they all say there is a massive social, environmental and economic cost. Here in the city of Sheffield, we suggest the costs of poor air quality in the city costs our local National Health Service provides hundreds of millions of pounds every year, treating those who suffer chest and lung ailments as a result of the pollutants in the atmosphere. Those more exposed (often living, or working closer to the sources of poor air quality) are more likely to suffer. Those who are young, or old, or in poor health are more vulnerable.
So, what’s the solution and who is charged with delivering it? Well, in truth there is no one solution – it will be a combaination of many, many interventions. Every city taking this issue serviously will be looking at a range of options to tackle this problem – and some are easier to introduce than others. To inform those choices, it is important to understand in fine detail the sources of your air quality problem. Locally, we have undertaken an assessment of the vehicles running on Sheffield’s roads and have monitored emissions on key arterial routes to understand the actual (rather than modelled) emissions from passing vehicles. It is helping us to better understand whether all vehicles are equally responsible, or whether we need to target particular fleets (HGVs, buses, taxis, private vehicles, light goods, etc).
Despite all that, the solution is well understood. We need to move away from diesel towards ever increasing cleaner fuels. Increasingly, we see two short-medium term winners – for lighter vehicles electric hybrid and electric plug-in solutions are likely to fair well and, given the improvement in battery technology and capacity the concept of ‘range anxiety’ (that awful fear that you might be left stranded somewhere without a hope of plugging-in) will become a thing of the past. More and more of these lighter vehicles appear to have switched from petrol to diesel in recent years as subsequent UK policy incentivised the uptake of diesel through reduced road tax as a way of reducing carbon emissions. For once, what’s been good for carbon dioxde (and only very marginally) hasn’t been good for local air quality.
For heavier vehicles, electric is less likely to play a significant role for some time to come, the smart money is on the use of gas as an alternative to diesel. Whilst governments across the world are now faced with the prospect of fracking shale gas, provided there is a (more) sustainable solution, such as biogas, this could be a significant player. Of course, the concept of range anxiety still remains, so investment in gas refuelling technology is essential if gas is to see widespread adoption. Networks of gas refuelling stations on key routes on motorways and arterial roads and in depots up and down the country will be needed and public intervention is needed to achieve this.
Across South Yorkshire we have idenitifed a number of key sites for the development of gas refuelling infrastructure and are working with the fleet operators and the industry more generally to begin its development. Over coming weeks and months, I’ll post updates on this important programme of work.