A breath of fresh air for Europe's citizens
Over half of the world's population lives in urban areas and that proportion is rising. This has severe consequences for the quality of the air we are exposed to thanks to increased transportation and industry within built-up areas. Rising levels of pollution prompted the European Commission in recent years to fund a number of projects into air quality across the EU at the city, regional and country level.
Air pollution is caused by airborne particles and gases in the atmosphere. The main source of these pollutants is transportation; therefore urban areas with a population reliant on cars and lorries for movement and freight are the most affected.
Such pollution carries serious health consequences. Pollution from sources such as motor vehicles, wood stoves and coal power plants was estimated in a 2000 analysis to reduce a European citizen’s life expectancy by 8.2 months . But thanks to air quality measures already implemented and those yet to come that figure is estimated to fall to 5.2 months in 2020. Results from EC-funded studies will help policymakers across Europe tailor air quality measures to their own city and reach this goal.
In the MEGAPOLI project, scientists took samples from different EU megacities to compare the chemical composition of the air and ascertain the effects on the health of citizens in these areas. Focussing on cities that have a population over 5 million, MEGAPOLI modelled the interaction between urbanisation and future urban climates and air quality. The project’s 23 partners studied four regions intensively: Paris, London, Rhine-Ruhr and the Po Valley, organising a two month measurement campaign in Paris that was featured on Euronews TV channel and conducting chemical analysis within the lab to study secondary organic aerosols in particular.
“There is no one unique solution for all cities,” said Professor Alexander Baklanov, project leader for MEGAPOLI. “We are considering scenarios short-term up to 2030 and longer-term up to 2050. There are different recipes and we are trying to find the optimal scenarios for each megacity in the short and long term.”
Pollution is not limited to the ground level where we live, however. The PEGASOS project is looking at pollution further up in the atmosphere. The project gets its name from the zeppelin used to gather data a few hundred metres above the ground. Moored in northern Italy this summer, this airborne platform is followed by mobile laboratories equipped with instruments to examine the variation between atmospheric and ground-level air quality. This data is coupled with measurements from facilities called smog chambers, where air pollution is reproduced in a controlled laboratory environment.
“Things are getting better in central and northern Europe. Eastern Europe is taking steps forward but the next steps are going to be more difficult,” said Professor Spyros Pandis, project co-ordinator of PEGASOS. “They’ve done the basic things; everything from now on is going to be expensive so we’ll need to make sure that the right things are done.”
The objective of the project, which will culminate in 2015, is to suggest measures to improve air quality while accounting for future climate change. A prime example is wood-burning stoves. Thought not so much a problem in urban areas, burning wood in fireplaces is commonplace in rural areas during winter. This is a positive activity for climate change as non-fossil fuels are being burnt but is actually one of the major sources of air pollution in the EU.
“Fireplaces are actually making as much [pollution] as several hundred cars, which is a bit unexpected. So we are looking for win-win measures,” said Pandis.
Positive results have already been seen from existing general EU policies on green energy, ecological fuel use and the reduction of petrol vehicles on roads. Projects such as MEGAPOLI and PEGASOS are delving further into specific solutions to improve air quality in the future.