By mapping its own air pollution, London can help cities worldwide

Fred Krupp

We do not all breathe the same air.

In fact, varying levels of pollution mean the quality of the air we breathe differs sharply from country to country, from state to state – even street to street. In West Oakland, California, for example, researchers have shown that air pollution levels can vary by up to eight-fold within a single city block.

Those differences in air quality have enormous public health impacts. Globally, air pollution is responsible for some 7 million premature deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization – more than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

Since the most pervasive air pollutants are invisible to the eye, the risk and the inequity are invisible. But now, a new initiative is making these invisible threats visible, and setting an example for cities around the globe.

The Mayor of London, Environmental Defense Fund, the C40 consortium of 90 cities tackling climate change, and a host of other partners last week launched Breathe London, an ambitious project that will measure and map Londoners’ daily exposure to air pollution using a network of advanced air pollution sensors deployed across the city.

Breathe London will shine a light on air pollution at a hyper-local level and provide data that lets us not only see the problem, but take action to solve it. Armed with hyper-local data, communities, researchers, innovators and policy makers will be empowered to turn the data into solutions that create healthier air.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan was not exaggerating when he declared that his city’s air quality problem “is now a matter of life and death,” with children in particular having severe reactions. A recent five-year study of central London children confirmed that long-term exposure to urban air pollution is related to smaller lung volumes.

Thanks to advances in mobile sensor technology, researchers have shown that air pollution levels in Oakland, California can vary by up to eight-fold within just one city block. Living in areas with the most elevated levels of air pollution increases heart attack risk in the elderly by up to 40 percent, a level similar to a history of smoking.

Making the invisible visible

A new generation of mobile sensors and other precise, affordable monitoring technology will greatly expand London’s air quality monitoring network and deliver much richer, more detailed data than currently available.

This information will give Londoners a real-time picture of the air they’re breathing as they move around the city. By visualizing the existing threat – and documenting the benefits of policy interventions – more and better data will lead to more effective policies and ultimately, healthier air.

London is just the beginning. This new model can be adapted and replicated in cities around the world.

Mapping of London air quality

Breathe London is using new technology to make the air pollution problem actionable.

It started with the deployment of 100 low-cost air quality monitors, each equipped with up to 10 separate sensor types, in a flexible network throughout London. Thirty of these sensor pods will be moved as needed to react to pollution hotspots identified by mobile monitoring.

Next, Google Street View cars equipped with state-of-the-art sensor technology will repeatedly sample the air over a thousand miles of London roads. This mobile mapping strategy has been used effectively in Houston, TX and West Oakland, CA. EDF is expanding this work to include commercial and municipal fleets as well.

Together, this network of stationary and mobile air quality sensors will provide an unprecedented amount of data that will be used by Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants, another partner in the project, to improve the air pollution modelling and forecasting system for London.

Data drives action

Identifying pollution hotspots helps bolster and focus public demand for action, and gives policy makers the scientific evidence needed to identify solutions. Businesses, policy makers and city planners will know where to best focus the development of green infrastructure, schools and playgrounds, and how to take steps to reduce harmful emissions from buildings and transportation.

These are just some important steps that can be taken to help improve air quality and reduce the risks of pollution for some of the most sensitive communities.

For example, localized air quality data could lead to the deployment of electric and low emission municipal vehicles in the most polluted neighborhoods. Under a new California law, citizens armed with local air quality data in West Oakland are pushing for cleaner air.

Taking the model to cities worldwide

We look to the day when detailed, street-by-street maps of air pollution are available for almost any city. But maps alone don’t save lives: effective, sometimes unlikely partnerships are essential to unlocking the power of these new data.

In 2018, for example, C40 launched an Air Quality Network to help cities identify and advocate for actions that reduce air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. EDF is committed to working with this network to provide best practices for using new technologies to diagnose a city’s air pollution problem, design solutions and share results.

Unprecedented innovation is driving accelerated action. Data-driven solutions that clear the air for communities across London should inspire other cities to take similar action to improve air quality, protect public health and slow climate change.

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