COVID-19 green recovery should account for local variations in air quality

New analysis finds the cost of damage caused by poor air quality means pathways to Net Zero may differ significantly between areas across the UK – with faster decarbonisation in cities needed, particularly in the shift to Electric Vehicles and public transport.

This means a green economic recovery from COVID-19 should take account of regional and local variations in air quality when low carbon technology and infrastructure investment decisions are being made.

The findings in the report Air quality modelling in ESME come after Energy Systems Catapult upgraded its internationally peer-reviewed Energy Systems Modelling Environemnt to take account of six pollutants responsible for poor air quality. ESME was recently used in delivering the widely cited report – Innovating to Net Zero.

While this new functionality enables ESME to explore the potential trade-offs and co-benefits between decarbonisation and clean air strategies on a national and regional scale. The very localised nature of air pollution underlines the importance of taking local approach to any green recovery and utilising measures such as a Local Area Energy Planning.

Energy Systems Catapult, Energy Innovation Research Office manager, Dr Adam Thirkill said: “Many cities have benefitted from cleaner air as an unintended consequence of lockdown measures  –  although this is balanced against the threat of infection, economic downturn and an impact to our general sense of freedom  –  it has nonetheless provided a glimpse of what could be achieved with respect to air quality with the right policies in place.

“Exposure to air pollution has been linked to an estimated 40,000 deaths per year in the UK. More recently, scientists have made links between long term exposure to air pollution and an increased risk of death from COVID-19. And, whilst the contribution to the spread of the virus remains unclear, coronavirus has been discovered attached to airborne particulate matter.”

“Our analysis shows that while cutting carbon emissions also reduces air pollution, these reductions are not enough to meet air quality targets laid out in the National Emissions Ceilings Directive.”

Findings include:

  • Firstly, the use of fuels and burners that are not compliant with Renewable Heat Incentive criteria risks near term Particulate Matter targets not being met – of particular importance for biomass heating.
  • Secondly, unless the switch away from fossil fuel use (especially in road transport) occurs sooner, 2030 Nitrogen Oxide­ targets will also be missed.
  • Thirdly, analysis also indicates that Particulate Matter from brakes, tyres and road wear is an important source of emissions, shown to be greater than those from fuel combustion.