The politics of air quality management

In order to bring air pollution emissions back in line with EU law, tough decisions have to be made by business, governments and citizens across Europe. Such decisions generate resistance as it means a change to the status quo and the redistribution of power. But change is essential to improve our health and create a future with clean air.

A farming crisis

In October Dutch farmers took to the roads, driving their tractors to the Hague to fight back against new rules on nitrogen emissions. They felt they were unfairly treated and as a result several councils decided to scrap tighter rules.

Image result for dutch farmers protest

The Netherlands is currently experiencing a ‘nitrogen oxides pollution crisis’ largely attributed to industrial farming and vehicle emissions. Drastic changes are needed to fall within EU law to protect nature from these emissions, including several that will impact on the farming industry.

Farming is a leading cause of air pollution and climate change and many scientists believe we cannot protect our planetary life support system within the industrial model. Among the Dutch law changes are tougher emissions inventories for farmers and plans to change livestock feed to include an enzyme that reduces nitrogen emissions from cows. However, they will only be implemented if councils can remain united on these national regulatory measures.

Leaving no one behind

As the Dutch farmer case shows, those with the loudest voice (or rather biggest economic stake) have the biggest influence in decision making. What results is watered down measures to continue business as usual (link to our other blog), rather than the radical shifts needed to mitigate our current Climate and Ecological Emergencies. Indeed, over 11,000 international scientists have recently called for urgent action from politicians to stop ‘untold consequences’ of growing carbon and other emissions.  

In the UK a similar pattern is emerging. As a result of failing to tackle one of the root causes of pollution – the private car – transport is now the largest sectoral source of carbon emissions in the UK. Private cars take the lion’s share of these emissions and they are still rising.

Local councils have been left with the unsavoury job of trying to tackle the problem locally, in a political climate that invests in mass road building.

In Bristol, the City Council have spent the last several years preparing its Clean Air Plan. They have consulted communities across the city, including economically deprived areas, and spoken with businesses and various organisations.

If approved by Central Government, the city intends to ban all privately-owned diesel vehicles from entering the city centre from 7am to 3pm, daily, from 2021. “There would also be a wider Clean Air Zone (CAZ) where non-compliant commercial vehicles such as buses, taxis, HGVs and LGVs would be charged. A car scrappage scheme would also be launched” says the Council. “Modelling that informed this ‘hybrid’ approach shows the council can meet the government test for improved air quality in the shortest time possible (by 2025). The hybrid approach also reduces the number of lower income households directly affected by the measures.”

Bristol already has a growing number of cycle lanes and footpaths, along with e-bike hire schemes and hybrid electric buses, but more work is required to spread and connect these across the city, to increase their visibility and appeal. Continued consultations will be required to overcome barriers that communities face to ditching diesel. And in the long-term, changes in the design of neighbourhoods is required to minimise the need to take a polluting vehicle for work, leisure and shopping.

Clean air balancing acts

The process towards reaching net-zero emissions is clearly a challenge for decision makers, as is the nature of politics. Redistributing the centres of power – be that from farmers, car owners or others – will require persistence and collective power. The Climate Strikes and acts of rebellion this year are signs that this table is starting to turn. They are disruptive but they are also constructive, demanding that citizen assemblies be established so the collective voice of ‘the people’ can be amplified.

The ClairCity project offers evidence to support the important role citizens can play in the future decision making of cities and in particular the process towards a future with clean air and net-zero emissions. We will be releasing our results in the coming months so stay tuned for more information.

Space to Breathe

Gridlock in Bristol @Robert Ashby
Gridlock in Bristol @Robert Ashby

Gridlock – a word we hear far too often in European cities. Like clogged arteries, our cities struggle to push through their traffic and continue business as usual. When the blood stops pumping, it is a sign that the (transport) system is failing. In this series of blogs we look at some of the main air pollution challenges for each of our partner cities… starting with Bristol

In Britain, in one decade, the yearly commute is now on average 18 hours longer. Britain’s rail network is overcrowded, its bus service has been severely impacted by ongoing budget cuts despite it being the most frequently used mode of public transport, and cars and vans remain the most popular mode of travel for trips. Two thirds (62%) of all trips are made by car/van, compared to 25% for walking, 8% for bus and just 2% each for trains and bicycles. Most trips made by private car continue to be less than 5 miles (see NTS0308). That equates to over 12 trillion tonnes of CO2 per year emitted each year through these largely avoidable car journeys[1] – or 24% of UK’s domestic greenhouse gases. Pollution from cars and vans costs £6 billion per year in health damages, which to bring the analogy full circle, clogs our arteries. And it effects the poorest the most – in Bristol, you only have to look at the houses either side of the M32 for this to sink in.

Freeing up space

If these sub-5-mile journeys were avoided then two thirds of road users in any given day would be removed from the equation. This frees up the roads for a much improved bus network, and creates space for millions more cyclists who were once fearful of being knocked over during rush hour. With this new space, we could also improve life for those who can’t get about by active travel. Trams could be installed, cycle and foot paths built and pedestrian zones created across cities, not to mention all the possibilities for recreation and wildlife corridors! It’s these policy decisions which ClairCity has been examining through its Delphi process, with many Bristol residents showing great support for major changes in our cities and a preference not to travel by car to work in the future.

Neighbourhood design and life in the future

We need to consider how we will all work, live and play in the future. For our city to work as it should, we need a transport system which can get people from a-to-b safely, in a reasonable time and in the healthiest way possible.

Part of the reason why people travel by car/van is because their local neighbourhoods lack local amenities, such as green grocers, sports clubs, libraries, or places of worship, meaning not only are people needing to drive for their leisure pursuits, but they are finding it increasingly harder to have enough social contact in a given week. Each neighbourhood needs to be designed with environmental and social impact in mind.

Imagine if more people worked from home, could use local co-working spaces, or teleconferencing instead of travelling to work every day? And with more local amenities, people can enjoy the places where they live and hopefully gain upskilled work in climate adaptation, community organising or some other role that has not been invented yet.

We are already starting to see some of these ideas come to pass. From National Clean Air Day, to Playing Out, School Streets, school buses, cycle-to-work schemes, and city electric car rentals there are already many committed activists out there. With Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset Councils all declaring a Climate Emergency along with pledges to Bristol’s Leap Energy Partnership (the biggest ever council-led energy investment programme in the UK) we are off to a promising start.

Show me the money

However, the battle has not yet been won. Local governments are struggling to keep up with the pace of change required and marginalised communities continue to be left out of decision-making processes, meaning those with the biggest carbon footprint continue to have the biggest voice.

As Alex Morse wrote earlier this year in the Independent: “The problem is, Bristol is leading a blindfolded egg and spoon race. It has scraped together a £250,000 emergency budget, and like all the other cities it will have to invent its own direction, lacks crucial powers and has to rely on much goodwill, luck and voluntary compliance to address some of its biggest carbon emission problems. There is no jurisdiction over local businesses or residents to audit or regulate their carbon emissions”.

Holding business accountable

At the moment, some of the biggest industries, either operating in the city or supplying goods to the city, leave us in the dark about their carbon footprint. As Morse adds: “Either we adopt the mantra of buying local or we are largely dumping our carbon overseas”.

Big businesses need to be held accountable for their impact, for example by auditing the carbon footprint of teams or departments, the products they make or services, and where they are investing their money (including pension schemes). Meanwhile, central Governments need to implement a principle of ecocide to prevent environmental destruction, invest in and subsidise renewable energy, invest in community infrastructure and prioritise our national railways – the list is not exhaustive.

Demanding change

At a collective level, we can unite around these issues to push for change, and draw on precedents to help the campaign.

Some things we could do in Bristol to help shift the balance of power could include:

We need all hands-on deck in Bristol to ensure we can reach net carbon neutrality by 2030 and ensure that marginalised voices are included. What actions could your community take? Share your comments below.

[1] 46.9m (62% of the population) x (5 miles x 364 days) = 85358e10 miles/y). 5mi in a Diesel car (with an average MPG of 51.7) = 1.15kg CO2. 1.15kg x 85358e10 = 12803700000000000 = 12,803,700,000,000 Tonnes CO2. This is not the most sophisticated calculation, and it is unlikely that all of these drivers commute by themselves… but the fact of the matter is that we are polluting a lot of unnecessary CO2.

Supporting Bristol Clean Air Day 2019

The UK celebrated its third Clean Air Day on 20th June 2019, and the ClairCity team were in high demand across Bristol and the media.

Our day started with a morning assembly at Ashton Gate Primary School in South Bristol thanks to Action Greater Bedminster, where 300 keen young air quality scientists had lots of ideas on how to clean up Bristol’s dirty air.

Many thanks to our new friends at Ashton Gate Primary – 300 smart and ready air quality experts with loads of ideas on how we can improve the air we breathe together #CleanAirDay @cleanairdayuk @DayBristol @sbristolvoice

— ClairCity (@ClairCity) June 20, 2019

The children already knew that air pollution was a problem, but they were glad to hear that their location and the traffic calming measures in front of their school meant that their playground was under the legal limit. Worse news was that their city centre was not so safe. They planned to do an air pollution activity using our ClairCity chatterboxes to learn more and take the message home to family and friends.

Heading east

Next stop on our tour was the neighbourhood group St George Breathing Better in East Bristol. We helped them with resources and stickers while they ran a photo action campaign about air pollution in their neighbourhood. The event took place in the Beehive Centre, a busy community centre where Thursday mornings include toddler groups and supported activities for older residents – two of the most vulnerable groups for air pollution.

In the news

While Corra helped with conversations amongst neighbours, Dr Laura De Vito was interviewed on Ujima Radio, a Bristol station that designs content specifically to meet the needs of the African-Carribean and other Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Interviewed by Jasime Ketibuah-Foley, one of Bristol’s previous “Green and Black Ambassadors” for a show also featuring the Mayor of Bristol, Laura explained the links between air pollution and social inequalities.

Elsewhere in the city, Dr Jo Barnes was being interviewed for the regional lunchtime and evening BBC news, and as part of a national piece shown on Channel 4 news.

Sunshine afternoon

Then it was a lunchtime stop off at the Bristol Clean Air Alliance event in Castle Park, where a number of organisations gathered to share information on local air pollution and environmental issues with lunchtime park goers.

In the afternoon, the team hit the town again with representation at Mayor Marvin Rees’ official Clean Air Plan launch and supporting Clean Air Bishopston out on Gloucester Road in North Bristol. Colleagues from the Centre for Transport and Society at UWE Bristol provided key facts, information on transport research and options to the after-work crowd. Our huge thanks to all of the community groups involved in setting up all of the events we visited.

Super happy with our turn out today for

— Bristol Clean Air Day (@DayBristol) June 20, 2019

#cleanairbishopston .. for clean air day …

— The Bishopston Society (@BishSoc) June 20, 2019

If your community would like a visit from an air quality expert for a chat about the situation in Bristol or more information then please get in touch.

Clean air for animals too

We are using our blog to share stories and news from our ClairCity Associates. To start us off, here is the perspective of Bristol Zoo Gardens from Elinor Kershaw, their Sustainability Coordinator.

At Bristol Zoo Gardens, a conservation and education charity as well as an outdoor visitor attraction, the news that Bristol’s air quality was so poor was a real concern to us. We have responsibility for the welfare of hundreds of animals, many of whom live outside, as well as thousands of visitors each year. If air quality continues to deteriorate in the developed world, it is possible to envisage a time when spending your free time at an outdoor space would be neither pleasant nor safe. Joining ClairCity seemed like a good opportunity to be part of the discussion and advocating for the needs of clean, safe recreation spaces and animal welfare.

We work closely with both universities in the city on a huge range of projects. This year, as well as getting involved with ClairCity via UWE Bristol, we worked with the University of Bristol on student environmental monitoring projects looking at how the air quality at our site compared to the wider city. Bristol Zoo Gardens is more than 180 years old and is a walled site which has been managed as a green space with trees and all manner of plants for all of that time. We hoped that our walls and vegetation would be contributing positively to the air quality in our site, however as an ‘island’ with less air movement it could also have been trapping pollution which settled into the site.

The students compared pollution levels inside our site with the road outside, as well as with a local rural location and a busy city-centre street. We were pleased to find that the pollution levels inside were consistently lower than outside, especially seeing as at times the local street had higher levels of air pollution than the city centre.

We also recognise that we are contributing in part to that local pollution as many of our guests arrive by car. We already offer discounted entry to guests using sustainable transport options (public transport, cycling, park & ride) and a frequent bus comes to the site from the mainline rail station via the city centre. We hope that ongoing improvements to local bus infrastructure will make it easier for guests to make their whole journey by public transport, meeting that reliable service at a local interchange stop with their bus to and from home.

Improving air quality is vital for general health and to enable outdoor activities for mental and physical wellbeing. For our native species, and for globally endangered species we need to take responsibility for the pollution we release into the air – it’s their air too!

Clean Air walking tips

As part of Bristol Walking Festival 2018, the ClairCity team put on our trainers and took a short but informative walk around central Bristol. Air Quality Officer Andrew Edwards from Bristol City Council led the walk, showing attendees how the council monitor the air, the issues facing the city and some tips on how to avoid and reduce the air pollution themselves.

For a downloadable flyer version of the information, please see our Resources page.

  • Use the car less when you can, especially if you drive a diesel

    • You are still exposed to air pollution even if you are inside a car, so being in traffic is not safe.
    • 40% of pollution (nitrogen dioxide) in Bristol’s city centre is from diesel cars.
  • Increase your distance from traffic wherever possible

    • Walk along the section of the pavement furthest from vehicles. Even an increase of 1 metre can help.
    • Choose side roads rather than the main road when you have the option.
  • Avoid busy roads

    • When you have the option, always try to walk upwind of the pollution from vehicles
    • If possible avoid busy roads at peak times e.g. during the rush hours when traffic and pollution levels are generally higher
  • If you are particularly sensitive to pollution (e.g. heart condition, severe asthma etc) watch out for alerts on BBC weather forecasts.

    • For most people, it will still be better to use active travel and get some exercise (e.g. walking or cycling) on higher pollution days.
    • By not using the car you are reducing the overall amount of pollution, and exercise has many benefits for our physical and mental health.

Local MP enjoys ClairCity game

Our ClairCity Skylines game is hitting the news and generating local interest across the city. Last week, Thangam Debbonaire MP (Bristol West) got to enjoy the game as part of the “Creative Reactions” exhibition in Hamilton House, Bristol.

Thangam has been raising issues of air quality in her constituency, and was keen to see new ways to get more people to engage with the issue and understand the challenges – and opportunities – that tackling air pollution can bring.

Within the exhibition there is also a piece inspired by the ClairCity project, made by local artist Laura Howarth. We talked to Laura about the health impacts of air pollution, especially on hearts and lungs. Her final pieces for the exhibition were references to the damage done to lung tissue from diesel emissions. All of the work in the exhibition is inspired by cutting edge research taking place in Bristol, interpreted through the work of over 30 local artists. Creative Reactions is on show until 22nd May 2018 as part of the Pint of Science festival.

You can download and play ClairCity Skylines yourself from

See the press release for this event here.

Mayor of Bristol promotes ClairCity Skylines

The ClairCity Skylines team with Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees

As part of the launch of ClairCity Skylines, the free game available for download on Android and iOS devices from ClairCity, Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees was one of the first players of the game. Alongside UWE Bristol students, he attended the game launch event in The Foundry space at UWE Bristol to test the game and talk with journalists.

Mayor Marvin Rees plays ClairCity Skylines with UWE students

Marvin said: “The ClairCity project’s new game is an exciting and different way of getting people involved in the conversation about air quality. This is a massive issue facing Bristol with our residents and visitors at risk from unacceptable levels of pollution.

“We are working hard to tackle the issue but we need everyone to work together and be aware of what we can all do to contribute to making a positive change. As well as being entertaining, this game will also provide us with an alternative insight into what people might like to see happening in our city to make it a healthier place.”

If you want to try the game, go to our ClairCity Skylines page and download it for free.

ClairCity Skylines launches for Bristol

A new game has been launched, and it’s all about Bristol. The ClairCity Skylines game from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and Bristol City Council, enables people in the city to shape how they want their city to look in the future. By making decisions in the ClairCity Skylines game, players also provide data that can help authorities solve real world problems, such as air pollution, in the city.

The free app, available for Android and iOS devices, involves visiting famous sights in the city and making decisions about how Bristol should look in the next 50 years.

Within the game, players are asked to make choices about the city, such as whether more roads should be built, if wood and coal heating in homes should be allowed, and whether more parks and green spaces should be created. The decisions they make are scored as they impact on the city’s economy and its air pollution, as well as residents’ health and happiness.

Enda Hayes, Technical Director on ClairCity and Professor of Air Quality & Carbon Management at UWE Bristol, said: “There are approximately 300 deaths a year linked to air pollution in Bristol City Council’s own figures. Our game is an innovative way to be part of a serious solution.”

The parent project, ClairCity, is an EU funded scheme looking at ways to improve wellbeing, reduce air pollution and limit carbon emissions in six cities and regions across Europe. UWE Bristol and Bristol City Council are two of the 16 partners involved in the project.

The launch of the game coincides with the beginning of a six month engagement period by Bristol City Council, which will involve speaking to local people, businesses and organisations to inform the upcoming Clean Air Plan.

Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees said: “The ClairCity project’s new game is an exciting and different way of getting people involved in the conversation about air quality. This is a massive issue facing Bristol with our residents and visitors at risk from unacceptable levels of pollution.

“We are working hard to tackle the issue but we need everyone to work together and be aware of what we can all do to contribute to making a positive change. As well as being entertaining, this game will also provide us with an alternative insight into what people might like to see happening in our city to make it a healthier place.”

UWE Bristol academics developed ClairCity Skylines at PlayWest, a games studio based at the University that works with industry partners to apply games technology to real world problems.Andy King, leading the game design for ClairCity Skylines andAssociate Professor – Technology & Innovation at UWE Bristol, said: “We know that computer games by themselves won’t save the world, but they offer an exciting, engaging way to get lots of people involved in finding solutions for some of the problems we face around air pollution and city development.”

Bristol is the first of the cities and regions to be gamified within ClairCity. Five other areas around Europe will also get their own bespoke game to play, so that the project can map the different choices that residents make and quantify the impact those choices would have on each region.

For more information or to download the game, go to: ClairCity Skylines

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 689289.