The public sector, industry and universities must work together to tackle air pollution

The West Midlands is harnessing innovations from its universities to help solve the national air pollution crisis, writes Cllr Ian Courts, leader of Solihull Council and environment portfolio holder for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).

The West Midlands is committed to delivering clean, inclusive growth. This means public, private, and philanthropic investment alike working to achieve the same social and environmental goals, drawing on cross-sector innovation to get there.

Averting climate breakdown and improving air quality are two of the greatest challenges we face, and the West Midlands Combined Authority is exploring how it can create the conditions to meet those challenges, while also creating jobs and future-proofing our economy.

The seeds of this approach have been planted: strategically, in our Inclusive Growth Framework and the West Midlands Local Industrial Strategy; and in our delivery of a low carbon energy system, and of our enhanced mass transit and active travel network.

The region’s leadership is taking air quality particularly seriously, with local leaders in Birmingham and Coventry developing robust proposals for Clean Air Zones in an attempt to improve air quality in those cities.

There is a demand for solutions that reduce air pollution, and this is where collaboration between the public sector, industry, and our research and innovation institutions can bear fruit. This is a serious problem – but we can turn it into an economic opportunity.

Clean collaboration

The new national EV battery ‘centre of excellence’ which will be built in Coventry.

The formation of the WMCA itself was a major step in cross-sector regional collaboration, enhanced by the election of Mayor Andy Street, who has a strong business background as former Managing Director of the John Lewis Partnership.

It is a good place to get such collaborations right. Alongside the Universities of the West Midlands, the region has a great base from which to boost activity and innovation on every aspect of clean air – innovation which will help to clean air in cities all over the world.

Firstly, we’re looking at smarter measurements.

The University of Birmingham is home to the Birmingham Air Quality Supersite, which will allow researchers to gather more detailed data on the content of harmful urban air pollution and where the gases and particles that pollute our air are coming from, complementing existing local authority monitoring.

The Supersite, along with similar sites in London and Manchester, is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and will deliver comprehensive, continuous and long-term measurements of urban air quality. The supersite data will be used in the WM-Air, the West Midlands Air Quality Improvement Programme.

Looking to improve the accuracy of air quality forecasting and monitoring in London, a joint venture between the University of Warwick, Alan Turing Institute and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, is developing machine learning algorithms, statistical methodology and data science platforms to enable pollution monitoring in real-time.

The research will directly help the Greater London Authority to make better-informed policy decisions and interventions for reducing air pollution in the city. Researchers can also use the data to map out low pollution routes for Londoners who travel around the capital.

We’re also looking at alternative fuels and smart, clean energy systems.

New battery technology is critical to reducing carbon emissions from transport and industry, and this region will lead on getting it right. Warwick Manufacturing Group is behind the development of the systems needed for the UK’s first Gigafactory at its Battery Industrialisation Centre, which will provide a state-of-the-art facility for testing and developing battery technology. This is an excellent example of an investment that bridges university R&D and commercial deployment.

Bioenergy is another exciting prospect, which is expected to generate £12bn of new market opportunities in the UK supply chain by 2020. The European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) is working with businesses to implement bioenergy technologies into their operations, displacing older, polluting systems.

For example, EBRI has worked with Stourbridge-based Modus Waste & Recycling to recycle surplus waste from the commercial food market through anaerobic digestion, producing biogas for heating homes, with bio-fertiliser as a by-product. While it is a priority to prevent food waste from occurring in the first place, getting these circular economy processes in place is another important part of the picture.

Reducing our demand for polluting fossil fuels is part of cleaning the air and averting climate breakdown. Every tonne of food waste recycled prevents up to a tonne of CO2 entering the atmosphere. With an estimated 1.9 million tonnes of food wasted by the UK food industry each year, capturing and redeploying that waste will save CO2 and boost the circular economy.

Finally, we want smarter usage of existing vehicles. Aston University has been working as part of the Think Beyond Data project to design fleet optimisation techniques. An output of this project has been a 50% reduction in their vehicle usage, with learning that can now be applied to any vehicle fleet.

Future generations

These are just a handful of examples in a region full of creativity and promise. Everyone has a part to play, and we need to be honest about the choices we will have to make, and the implications of the decisions and investments we make.

Our challenge as system leaders is to ensure that our economic and environmental governance creates the means for turning university research into applied industrial practice.

Our citizens want us to achieve this properly, equitably, and at pace: this is about their health, and the quality of life in their places. But we can also build an economy which is clean by design, which provides those same citizens with good jobs and a role to play in creating a better world.