The Green Industrial Revolution: A breath of fresh air… potentially

  • Sarah Holliday

    Sarah Holliday

    Researcher (Maternity Leave)

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23 Nov 2020

The UK government last week published its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. With the increasing urgency to tackle the climate crisis unfolding before us, it is vital that our pathway to economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic also prioritises rapid decarbonisation. This plan is the first step of meeting those objectives.

Decarbonisation also has the important co-benefit of improving air quality. The burning of fossil fuels, intensive agriculture and other industrial processes are the main drivers of climate change but they are also the main contributors to air pollution, which is itself a significant health risk. It is estimated that man-made air pollution contributes to between 28,000 to 30,000 UK deaths each year, with urban centres like London and Manchester among the worst affected. This is also an issue of health inequality, with strong evidence that socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are exposed to more air pollution and therefore are at a greater risk to its related impacts on chronic diseases like asthma and heart disease.

To take rapid and effective action on both air pollution and the climate crisis, it is vital to have effective methods for monitoring and evaluation. Earlier this year in the Ditchley Annual Lecture, Michael Gove, argued for “bold, restless experimentation” by government, but also made an equally important demand – that the government should be “rigorous and fearless in its evaluation of policy and projects”.

However, we currently lack the tools needed to accurately and reliably monitor air pollution in order to achieve this ambition of rigorous evaluation. London has one of the most extensive networks of air quality monitoring stations of any capital city, but even so, the cost and size limits their quantity and locations, while lower cost monitoring solutions mainly consist of very basic and low-accuracy sampling via diffusion tubes. To provide the data needed for effective evaluation, we need a real-time hyper local network of smart, reliable and affordable air quality monitoring sensors that can be deployed across the UK and worldwide. This is where we are calling for innovation.

Read Nesta Challenges’ recommendations for Challenge Prizes for Clean Air

We have been looking at the role challenge prizes can play in delivering innovation for monitoring of air pollution. The prize method enables us to open up the challenge of air pollution monitoring to diverse innovators across research, industry, technology and public health, offering new technologies as well as innovative approaches to generating and using pollution data. 

By bringing these innovations to life, we can provide citizens, industry and policymakers with accurate information about the levels of different pollutants, how they vary in terms of time, weather, location and other factors, and how this interacts with our human and planetary health. Empowered with this information, stakeholders can then make informed decisions about how to effectively reduce emissions.

We have identified four prizes that we would encourage the government to explore as part of its commitment to deliver further policy and investment in this area:

  • Low-cost monitoring station prize – To develop a new, lower cost sensor technology for accurately monitoring gaseous and/or particulate air pollutants in a fixed location
  • Integrated pollution data prize – To develop a new approach to tracking air pollution and combining this data with other datasets to generate new insights and inform action
  • Personal exposure prize – To develop a new sensor technology to accurately monitor an individual’s total personal exposure to air pollution (indoor and outdoor)
  • Agricultural emissions prize – To develop new sensor technology to measure ammonia emissions in agriculture, one of the fastest growing sources of air pollution, enabling farmers and policymakers to identify pollution hotspots and take remedial action

The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution can help us preserve both human and planetary health, including delivering better air quality, but we can only know the impact it is having if we have the right tools and technologies. A challenge prize for clean air can help drive the innovation needed to provide these tools, enabling decision makers and communities to make the best choices for safeguarding our health.

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