Air Quality / Events

Grey Matter – Expert Evidence on Atmospheric Pollution

Grey matter - Brett Jordan - Flickr CC

Image: Brett Jordan/Flickr Creative Commons

By Mandi Bissett & Liz Batten

Michael Gove asserted recently that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” But he was wrong. We need them now, more than ever. Expert evidence forms the basis of our knowledge of climate change and air pollution, and will help us work towards solutions. In Southampton, air pollution seems to be an intractable problem, but one that fortunately we have the expertise to solve.

In mid-July, academics, council officers, industry representatives and campaigners were gathered together at a workshop hosted by the University of Southampton. The hope is that this is the first step towards developing an effective policy for tackling dirty air in Southampton and creating a model for other port cities to follow.

In his introduction, Professor Mikis Tsimplis got straight to the heart of the matter by stating that serious atmospheric pollution from road transport, aviation and shipping is causing significant health problems in our city. In fact, from the venue of the National Oceanographic Centre we could see the Queen Mary II berthed outside. This 17-deck behemoth was a prominent reminder of the key challenges that we face in tackling atmospheric pollution in Southampton – economic prosperity, but who actually sees the benefits and what is the cost to our health?

The personal cost of dirty air
The first two speakers were Professor Ian Williams and Dr Matt Loxham who provided a number of headline grabbing statistics:

  • Each person in the UK loses, on average, 6 months of their life due to air pollution.
  • 40,000 deaths in the UK each year are attributable to dirty air. However, both these figures only relate to fine particulate matter and do not include other airborne pollutants.
  • In Southampton, all forms of air pollution lead to 200 premature deaths each year.
  • The annual cost of air pollution in the UK currently stands at £54bn which works out at 3.7% of GDP.
  • Air pollution from shipping is responsible for 65,000 premature deaths worldwide. However, switching to supposedly cleaner fuels does not make air quality any better – they are just toxic in a different way.
EEA - Health impacts of air pollution

Image: European Environment Agency

Dr Loxham also referred to WHO guidelines on air pollution, which are much more stringent than the standards set by the EU. Could Brexit be an opportunity to lobby for making WHO limits enforceable in the UK?

EEA - Air pollution exposure in cities

Image: European Environment Agency

Air pollution and austerity
Steve Guppy, technical officer at Southampton City Council, talked about the council’s duty to assess air quality and implement action plans to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, due to austerity measures, there are now only 3 real-time air quality monitoring stations in the city. In addition, the council lost out on government funding to continue with its sustainable transport programme which seems to be at odds with plans for a Clean Air Zone. There is the hope that penalty charging in the zone will lead to positive behaviour change and an uptake in cleaner vehicles.

However, in order to make a significant difference to air quality in the city, sustainable transport policy needs to be at the heart of both the Local Plan and the Local Transport Plan. This means that air quality needs to be much higher up the political agenda for local councillors and be an important part of decision making. These two planning documents are due to be updated this winter – let’s put air quality front and centre.

A balancing act
Dr Emily Reid spoke about moving from the scientific evidence on air pollution to regulatory responses, and from there to behaviour change. There is a public health emergency that must be met regardless of whether EU standards apply or not in the years to come. But what would make effective regulation, especially as air pollution limits for 2020 will not be met? We must look to expert evidence in developing solutions but also be realistic in terms of what can be achieved.

The crux of the talk was the need to balance competing interests – economic, societal and environmental – by having stakeholder involvement across the city. But does environmental protection have to be underpinned by the economy in order to be sustainable? Do we need a Stern Review on the economics of air pollution?

Southampton City Hall - A long time ago ... - Flickr CC - web

Southampton City Hall. Image: A Long Time Ago/Flickr Creative Commons

Never underestimate the power of denial
Dr Ben Waterson’s talk questioned whether knowledge of poor air quality actually leads to behaviour change. There seems to be a general lack of awareness about such issues and denial about our personal responsibility for dirty air in the city. Earlier, Ian Williams commented: “there are no technological fixes” – it is up to us to move to more sustainable lifestyles. Education is key, but there is currently much greater ‘brand recognition’ of climate change than of air pollution, as this issue is not part of the national curriculum.

Dr John Boswell also talked about behaviour change – financial incentives such as making car parking more expensive will help, but the important fact is that there is no political will for regulatory change. Should behaviour change be driven by our politicians or by the individual?

Clean Air Southampton – why bother?
Liz Batten and Colin MacQueen gave an update of their campaign work and emphasised that air pollution has overtaken smoking as a serious public health issue – 11,000 premature deaths are attributable to passive smoking each year, compared to 40,000+ for polluted air. Recently the smogmobile visited the city as part of their public awareness campaign.

The team was critical of the introduction of a Clean Air Zone in Southampton as such zones have been shown to be ineffective in reducing noxious emissions. Instead they recommended the introduction of an Air Quality Monitoring Network for the Solent region. In addition, at the national level, could there be the opportunity for a new Clean Air Act?

3 Queens (2) - Nigel Brown- Flickr CC

The Three Queens at Southampton. Image: Nigel Brown/Flickr Creative Commons

Air pollution in the maritime environment
Mr Motonobu Tsuchiya from Lloyd’s Register spoke about the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and MARPOL Annex VI which relates to air pollution. However, this part of the convention only applies to ships of over 400 GT and so there is significant under-reporting of emissions.

Whilst particulate matter and NOx are of concern in relation to road transport, sulphur is the major contributor to air pollution from shipping. However, Professor Tsimplis commented that local authorities can impose lower limits on the sulphur content of fuels used by ships in port. There are also various technological solutions such as cold ironing, slow steaming and just-in-time arrival. Ms Kim Tanneberger (Lloyd’s Register) also mentioned methanol being the marine fuel of the future and the potential for organic waste recycling from cruise vessels. 7MWh could be produced from 1 day’s worth of organic waste!

Professor Williams rounded off this theme by talking about carbon emissions from shipping. Current emissions estimates should actually be doubled as they do not take smaller vessels into account. In addition, there is no continuous monitoring of shipping emissions whilst in port and powers to carry out checks and enforce penalties only lie with the government of the country where the ship is registered. Why can’t we regulate in our own waters?

The way forward
Discussions throughout the day raised a number of important questions about the impacts, challenges and solutions relating to atmospheric pollution. There are many areas still to be investigated such as:

  • What are the impacts of the port, airport and new developments?
  • What is our personal exposure to air pollution in Southampton?
  • Could a congestion charge be introduced in the city?
  • How can we shift social norms and effect behaviour change?
  • How can we ensure that the cost to public health forms part of financial and planning decisions?

However, the lack of political will to tackle air pollution seems to be the theme which underpins all of these issues. We’ve got the experts, now we just need to get our politicians to listen to them. Let’s tell our councillors that air pollution matters to us and so help empower them to be part of the solutions. Who will have the political courage to say #no2dirtyair?


Image: ClientEarth


At the end of the day we split into two groups to discuss (1) technical innovations and (2) behaviour change. The second group agreed the following actions:

  • set up a University Strategic Research Group (USRG) for air pollution
  • set up another group for citizens and other stakeholders (the Port, etc)
  • identify data gaps and plug them – the first being a stakeholder analysis
  • be holistic when considering interventions – look for unintended consequences
  • take a City-wide approach to avoid factions
  • whatever approaches are taken MUST include the Port
  • a proper feedback loop needed to inform the population of what is happening, what has been achieved, and to hear back
  • current Port of the Future project can feed into the USRG and vice versa
  • establishment of business awards for good practice re air pollution

Information from the first group should be available shortly.

6 thoughts on “Grey Matter – Expert Evidence on Atmospheric Pollution

  1. Monitoring of these pollutants is necessary across the city to rural areas outside the city.
    Without these measurements we will not know that background levels of these pollutants which can be significant and we will not be able to obtain spatial averages over the city. This is a first but necessary step.


  2. We need to determine the pollution levels as a function of time of day and the seasonal variation in Southampton and determine the trends in the polluting gases over say 20 years. I would expect the high levels are related to anticyclonic calm periods especially in winter. These are necessary to provide the input to local policy on traffic regulation (I believe car transport is the major emitter of pollution in the city).


    • Thank you very much for your comments! There are researchers at the University who are working on air quality monitoring as well as seasonal variation. Unfortunately due to austerity measures there are only 3 real-time monitoring stations in the city and council resources have been moved from monitoring to action planning.
      The council’s Clean Air Strategy (2016-2025) will go before Cabinet on 14th November It would be interesting to hear if you have any comments on this. Does it go far enough?


      • A very interesting document and plenty of actions to reduce air pollution in the city.
        My concern is that with 3 monitoring stations at key traffic hubs it may be tricky to back out the expected reductions. Why is this ? Emissions vary with time of day, type of traffic,which varies substantially during the day and the seasons. Pollution can be high very locally and in time, and that is why a spatial survey of the city is important. Spatial surveys in conjunction with your monitoring could help determine the broader context of pollution in the city and its citizens health and the surrounding region.

        Dr Neil C Wells Emeritus Professor at University of Southampton


      • Hi Neil, thanks again for your comments. You may be interested in responding to the Government’s current consultation on The Implementation of Clean Air Zones which closes on 9th December:
        Some information on the Southampton CAZ can be found in our blogpost on the subject.

        And on a related note, the Clean Air Southampton team were interviewed on Radio 4’s Costing the Earth program ‘Cruising: A dirty secret‘ (from 8:42)


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