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| CLEARing the air over Europe’s cities

When we worry about water quality, we can at least buy it in bottle form. Not so for air. Finding new ways to manage, monitor and mitigate the effects of poor quality air is vital. A group of European projects, assembled under the Cluster of European Air Quality Research (CLEAR), set about to improve scientific understanding of urban air pollution and to provide tools to manage air quality in cities.

The OSCAR project integrates datasets, modelling and scenario analysis to help decision-makers assess and cope with urban air pollution. © OSCAR project
The OSCAR project integrates datasets, modelling and scenario analysis to help decision-makers assess and cope with urban air pollution.
© OSCAR project
CLEAR assembles several EU projects which, although pursuing individual programmes, provide a complementary ‘critical mass’ of talent in urban air quality research. Working like this has resulted in major innovation in the field which underpins urban governance and, in the longer term, improves the built environment and European quality of life.

With €15 million in EU funding from the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), CLEAR comprises 11 projects with anything between seven and 19 partners per group. Combined, the cluster involves some 200 researchers in over 25 locations across Europe.

According to CLEAR’s coordinator Ranjeet Sokhi of the Atmospheric Science Research Group at the UK’s Hertfordshire University, the three-year-long cluster will be presenting its final report in December 2005. The report will show how the tools and methods developed by the many groups are helping end-users, such as local authorities and other stakeholders, to manage air pollution and respond appropriately to its impact.   

Strength in numbers

Sokhi told SUSDEV News that this EU cluster makes scientific sense because it widens our understanding of the many different air pollution sources and processes, helping to design tools and improve skills for assessing their indoor and outdoor impacts.

The combined research effort also helps to identify and reduce the resulting negative effects, such as ill-health and damage to buildings and monuments, while bringing air quality in line with major European initiatives, such as the Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) scheme. CLEAR is also putting scientific development in this field at the disposal of those responsible for setting air quality policy, from local authorities to regional decision-makers.

For example, the OSCAR project has been investigating how driving patterns affect air quality in Athens (EL), Helsinki (FI), London (UK) and Madrid (ES). “The project – part of the EU’s FP5 ‘City of Tomorrow’ Key Action – was geared towards traffic assessment from the local angle but with regional implications,” explains Sokhi.

What’s the scenario?

Is this the sort of urban environment you want to raise children in? © PhotoDisc
Is this the sort of urban environment you want to raise children in?
© PhotoDisc
OSCAR focused on improving our ability to assess air quality in and around urban streets by developing an assessment system to meet user needs as well as accommodate the latest scientific advances in this field.

“We discovered that cities using just one model could not accurately evaluate the air quality situation, so we put together a selection of appropriate models for quickly assessing street air quality as a guide for more advanced analysis.”

OSCAR is also adding scenarios to its tool bag, which should help policy-makers. “Using the scenarios, stakeholders will be able to ask: if I take this action, what impact will it have on the air quality?” says Sokhi.

For instance, if local authorities choose to ban or reduce heavy vehicles in the city, they can study the costs and benefits to see if it is worth doing. More about this project and its activities was revealed in March at the Urban Air Quality conference, co-organised by CLEAR members (see conference website).

A clutch of benefits

As a Europe-wide grouping, CLEAR is also well placed to spread the word about how scientific advances benefit not only end users but also citizens. Once fully implemented, the clusters’ combined output will produce a range of socio-economic benefits, including improving the health of urban dwellers – especially susceptible groups like children and the elderly – more efficient transport and better air quality management polices.

By improving the lines of communication between science and those who use research, CLEAR can improve decision-making. Such advances help regulatory and city authorities meet the EU’s strict air quality limits for pollutants (i.e. PM10 and NO2). They help businesses become more competitive internationally. The cluster is also keen that its results contribute to future policies on urban air quality through, for example, the next EU Framework Programmes.

Meshing together

Sometimes working together, sometimes autonomously, CLEAR’s many projects address key urban air quality research topics. In the area broadly defined as ‘Sources, processes and atmospheric composition’, projects such as URBAN AEROSOLS, OSCAR, SAPPHIRE and BOND are tackling challenges related to NO, NO2, O3, aerosols and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (incomplete combustion of carbon compounds in, for example, incinerators).

While most of CLEAR’s projects address the underlying science to improve our understanding of how to control exposure to various air pollutants, URBAN EXPOSURE, FUMAPEX and ISHTAR are developing new tools to know more about the effects of poor quality air on individuals and the populations in a given area. At the same time, OSCAR and ISHTAR are studying the impacts of traffic emissions and deterioration of monuments.

Cluster members are also working on multiple-scale interaction, acknowledging that, like air, pollution knows no boundaries. In fact, pollution dynamics are being investigated at various scales – from the micro- to local-level (ATREUS, URBAN AEROSOL, URBAN EXPOSURE and ISHTAR), from the local- to urban-level (OSCAR), and from the urban- to regional-scale (BOND and FUMAPEX).

Driving the cluster forward is the desire to find new – or improve current – models and tools for assessing air quality at the source (SAPPHIRE), as well as to predict and assess the dispersion and impact of urban air pollution. And, by working with those who use the models, CLEAR is helping to identify mitigation measures and policies to reduce the impact of air pollution on our cities.

Refinement and improvement of current systems is just one of CLEAR’s missions. Generating new data – through projects like SAPPHIRE, OSCAR, URBAN EXPOSURE and URBAN AEROSOL – on air pollution levels in European cities is critical to future research in the field. INTEGAIRE and OSCAR are collating relevant information on policy measures, such as for road transport, and FUMAPEX is putting data together on meteorological and air quality models.

What’s next?

“Although the cluster is theoretically ending, we will live on through projects carrying on in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6),” notes Sokhi. “We like to call it a ‘dynamic mechanism’ to ensure that the major players continue working together: it was successful in FP5, so why not FP6?”

Various partners have submitted proposals for FP6 funding which will complement CLEAR’s work. “In these proposals, we made sure we stressed to the Commission that CLEAR is not a one-off, but a dynamic platform for projects and partners to continue working together and to come up with the results that count most – ones that improve European air quality and quality of life,” he says.

“In short, I’m very confident of a future for CLEAR!”

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Professor Ranjeet S. Sokhi
Head of Atmospheric Science Research Group (ASRG)
Science and Technology Research Institute,
University of Hertfordshire College Lane, Hatfield, AL10 9AB, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1707 284520 Fax: +44 (0) 1707 284185
ASRG website