Urban experimentations for cleaner air

credit: http://www.airlab.solutions

Finding better ways to tackle air pollution is crucial to the future of the urban environment. In Paris, the city authorities and a number of companies involved in mobility and energy established in September 2017 Airlab as an innovation accelerator that would experiment with and identify the most effective air quality solutions. Airlab sponsors projects and facilities networking and exchange of ideas to find innovative answers. Airlab coordinator Pierre Pernot explained the challenges Airlab faces and how it intends to tackle them.

What are the main air pollution challenges facing Paris and other cities? Is this mainly a traffic management issue?

Air quality is improving in Île-de-France and in Paris, but still too slowly. In 2017 nearly half of Parisians were still exposed to air pollution levels beyond European Union limit values. The most problematic pollutants are nitrogen dioxide and fine particles (PM10 and PM2.5). The main sources are well known: road traffic for nitrogen dioxide and road traffic and domestic heating for fine particles. For fine particles the situation is complex; construction sites, agriculture, cross-border pollution and chemical reactions in the atmosphere are additional sources of pollution.

Whether in Paris or elsewhere, the big challenge is how to move faster and further to improve air quality. We need to find new ideas, to experiment and to identify new ways to leverage improvements via technological solutions – and also by encouraging people to change their behaviour.

Have you been able to quantify the specific costs of air pollution to Paris?

A lot of money is at stake when it comes to atmospheric pollution. A 2015 assessment from the French senate estimated the total cost of air pollution at between €68 and €97 billion per year for France[1], including damage to health (health expenditure, loss of productivity and absenteeism, premature mortality, etc) and non-health damage. The report found that the cost of non-health effects (deterioration of buildings, reduction in farm yields, loss of biodiversity, regulatory costs and even the cost of prevention policies) is ‘at least’ €4.3 billion.

But the benefits linked to any move to tackle pollution are just as significant and need to be taken into account. That same report assessed the net benefit of fighting air pollution at €11 billion per year.

When tackling urban air pollution, what is of most importance: technology, changing the behaviour of individuals or both?

In recent decades, France has seen significant progress from technological developments under regulatory pressure (such as EU and French directives on emissions and taxes on polluting activities). The industrial sector has implemented flue gas treatment solutions, which, combined with less-polluting fuels, have facilitated the reduction of, for example, sulphur dioxide levels by a factor of 20 in 50 years. Concentrations of carbon monoxide in the air have fallen markedly with the development of catalytic converters in vehicles. The problems of lead in the air have been resolved with the removal of leaded petrol.

The current challenge is to cut pollution further and more quickly. This means focusing on other activities that contribute to pollution (aviation, residential heating, agriculture) while maintaining a balance in terms of solutions that have been promoted to limit climate change, but that have had a negative effect in terms of air pollution (diesel, wood burning for heating). Regulations alone are insufficient. It’s also about promoting awareness and changes in behaviour. Everyone breathes, everyone emits pollution and everyone can take action to improve air quality.

That can be done by making the general public more aware and by using digital technology, new communication tools and the Internet of Things, which can offer solutions in terms of encouraging changes in behaviour and reaching different audiences.

What have Airlab’s main activities been to date?

The first step was to bring together public and private partners that are looking for solutions in different areas (transport, logistics, buildings, heating, digital technology, artificial intelligence), to speed up air quality improvements via this ecosystem.

Since AIRLAB’s launch, six projects have been started by AIRLAB partners[2]. The projects, which are about indoor air quality, outdoor air quality and mobility and citizens’ participation, are ongoing. We are preparing new calls for proposals in the coming months.

Are there one or two new technologies that are most promising for tackling urban air pollution?

At this stage it is difficult to highlight any one technology over another. That is also because several types of technology are being put forward: pollution abatement solutions, measuring equipment, linked up with specific information that might change behaviour. Each can be classified by specific area: transport, buildings, agriculture, etc.

Some of these solutions are being assessed via an Urban Lab call for innovative projects, which has selected ten projects[3], and via another call for tenders related to the underground rail network in the Île-de-France region[4]. Assessing projects – and measuring their quantitative impact – is at the very heart of what AIRLAB does.


[1] See https://www.senat.fr/notice-rapport/2014/r14-610-1-notice.html.

[2] See http://www.airlab.solutions/en/projects.

[3] Urban Lab is an incubator backed by the city of Paris; see http://urbanlab.parisandco.paris/Actualites/A-la-une/Decouvrez-les-10-laureats-du-programme-Qualite-de-l-Air.

[4] See https://www.iledefrance.fr/air-station.