ClairCity: tackling air pollution through social innovation

Evidence shows that efforts to clean up vehicles have failed to deliver the predicted air quality improvements and CO2 emission reductions necessary to meet legal, health-based targets. Consequently, a more holistic approach is necessary to help us achieve cleaner, healthier air.  The ClairCity project aims to show how air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are not just the result of polluting technology, or of individual choices, but instead are closely linked to the ways in which we organise modern society.

Different cars, same traffic jams

For many years, air quality policy has assumed that clean air and carbon reductions could be largely achieved through technological measures. To date air quality management has created a world populated by chimneys and vehicles, analysed through forecasting and models built upon average usage characteristics and emission factors, and consisting of polluting machines and objects. This view gives very little consideration to the people and the social frameworks that comprise such a world. This results in human behaviour being left largely untouched by policy, in a state of Business As Usual (e.g. by introducing cleaner cars, but allowing traffic flows to continue increasing).

Therefore, despite great successes at the end of the last century, the process of cleaning up (particularly light duty) vehicles has now run in to problems. Failures to achieve anticipated real world reductions in emissions is leading to widespread exceedences of European Limit Values, and relatively new but highly polluting cars are being locked into our vehicle fleets for the next decade or more. It is becoming increasingly evident that we will need changes to both behaviour and lifestyles to achieve our social and environmental goals. This need is evident not just in terms of air pollution, but also co-benefits in terms of greenhouse gases, noise, public space and so forth.

Technical measures and new opportunities

Our review work has shown that the measures included in typical high-level air quality plans tend to be disproportionately technical in nature and aimed at tackling specific sectors, for instance passenger transport or delivery of goods, or specific industries. Even where air quality plans attempt to go beyond command-and-control measures and aim at changing citizens’ behaviour they are predominantly limited to infrastructural/service investments and subsidies to less polluting vehicles and domestic appliances.

There is evidence to suggest that there is an increasing interest shown by policy actors in the role of the public. However, to date there has been little air pollution specific work on which to provide support to policy in this area.  From academic literature, there are three core ways in which the public have been designated a role in relation to air quality management. These are:

1) As relatively passive receptors of pollution;

2) As recipients of information about pollution concentrations, based on which they will change their behaviour to reduce their exposure;

3) As approvers of public policy, for example through assessments of their willingness to pay for cleaner air.

In terms of policy, there will occasionally be specific behavioural interventions but these usually take individualistic approaches, often treating travel activities as a matter of open choice, without detailed consideration of social and structural factors that lie behind people’s everyday decisions. One of the few examples of policies with a broader vision is The Cleaner Air for Scotland plan in the UK. This document strongly emphasises the need to look beyond individual circumstances and choices and understand what determines people’s choices, including not just material barriers but also norms and expectations.

Learning from others

To support this shift in air quality management, we look towards related fields of policy and research that have already addressed some similar concerns. There has been considerable work on both the psychological and sociological understanding of behaviour in the areas of transport and energy consumption, however there is little direct involvement of air quality management processes with the basic evidence base and theoretical approaches that have been developed there. Where behavioural interventions have been taken up into air quality management plans, this tends to have been done by simply selecting a set of off-the-shelf measures rather than a greater involvement and understanding of the social science evidence and research behind it.

Therefore the aim of ClairCity is to support air quality policy and management in incorporating a broader social science approach. We hope to show how new thinking about the role of people in relation to air pollution can change the options for action for cities and policy makers. As a project, we will demonstrate the practical applicability of this holistic approach by putting citizens at the centre of air quality management in our six pilot cities and regions.

Tim Chatterton, Laura De Vito, Eva Csobod, Peter Szuppinger and Gabor Heves

This is an edited extract from the ClairCity report “Review of Social Science in Air Quality and Carbon Management” which will be publicly available in mid-2018.