Zoning in on air pollution: low emission zones to tackle our dangerously dirty air

Image by Mike Malone

At the start of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that air pollution posed the greatest threat to global environmental health in 2019. The UN’s public health agency estimates that nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air every day.

Most of the pollutants in our air today come from traffic. Nitrogen dioxide and microscopically small particles emitted by motor vehicles can penetrate respiratory and circulatory systems, heightening the risks of heart attacks, lung cancer and respiratory conditions.

In the UK, poor air quality is estimated to cause the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year, while in London 9,500 are believed to have died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution.

The road to cleaner air

Across Europe, national and local authorities have been responding to the health risks posed by air pollution with measures to tackle emissions from vehicles. Many have introduced low emission zones (also known as clean air zones). These regulate vehicles with higher emissions, banning the most polluting vehicles from entering the zone and requiring them to pay a fee if they enter the area.

In various countries, low emission zones have different rules according to the type of vehicle and whether it meets EU emissions standards. In Germany, for example, there is a national framework of low emission zones affecting all motor vehicles except motorcycles. In Denmark, a similar framework applies to all diesel-powered vehicles above 3.5 tonnes. In Paris, all vehicles entering the low emission zone are required to display a sticker according to their emissions standards. The most heavily polluting vehicles are not allowed in. In addition, any vehicle can be refused entrance to the city centre in response to high levels of pollution on a given day.

A growing number of UK cities, such as Leeds and Birmingham have been working on the introduction of low emission zones, and some have already been implemented in Norwich, Oxford and Brighton.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government plans to create low emissions zones in the country’s four biggest cities by 2020, and the first of these is now up and running in Glasgow. The first phase was launched in January, targeting buses, which are among the most polluting vehicles. Glasgow’s biggest bus operator, First Bus, has purchased 75 new buses fitted with low emissions systems complying with the EU’s Euro VI standards. The scheme will be extended to other vehicles in stages.

London’s LEZ and ULEZ

Since 2003, when the congestion charge was launched, London has taken the lead with measures to tackle what Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calls the city’s “filthy, toxic air”.

In 2008, London created a low emission zone, and in 2017 a Toxicity Charge (T-Charge) introduced a surcharge for the most polluting vehicles entering central London. But levels of pollution in the capital remain stubbornly high, and so new measures have now been developed.

From 8 April 2019, an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) will be in place in London, imposing tighter exhaust emission standards. The ULEZ will cost £12.50 for diesel cars manufactured before 2015, as well as most pre-2006 petrol cars cars, motorcycles and vans up to 3.5 tonnes. Vehicles over 3.5 tonnes will have to pay £100 to enter central London. These charges are on top of the £11.50 congestion charge. Failure to pay the ULEZ will result in fines of £160 upwards.

By 2021, the ULEZ will be extended to the north and south circular roads, taking in more London boroughs, including Brent, Camden, Newham, Haringey and Greenwich. By that time, it’s expected that 100,000 cars, 35,000 vans and 3,000 lorries will be affected per day.

There have been mixed responses to the incoming ULEZ. Health organisations such as the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation, have welcomed the measure, and environmental bodies also see the ULEZ as a step in the right direction. Sustrans, the sustainable transport organisation, commended the Mayor for “showing welcome leadership on tackling toxic air pollution.” Friends of the Earth welcomed the expansion of the ULEZ as “a promising step towards clean air in the city centre”, and called for further moves to protect the health of people living in Greater London.

However, motoring organisations voiced their concerns about the new zone. The RAC has argued that expansion of the ULEZ into residential areas will hit those on low income backgrounds hardest:

“…many now face the daunting challenge of having to spend substantial amounts of money on a newer vehicle or face a daily charge of £12.50 to use their vehicles from October 2021.”

The Road Haulage Association has voiced its opposition to the early application of the ULEZ to Heavy Goods Vehicles, claiming that the measure will have limited impact on improving health and air quality in central London.

Final thoughts

Striking a balance between environmental, health and economic pressures was always going to be a challenge. Even in London, which has led the way in tackling poor air quality, longstanding policies aimed at reducing air pollution have failed to bring it below legal levels. The new ULEZ may go some way to doing that, but it might also antagonise drivers faced with ever-rising costs. Cities on the journey to cleaner air are in for a bumpy ride.


Further reading on tackling air pollution

Recycling: is it worth it?

Free for all: fare-free public transport is going places

At the end of 2018, the coalition government in Luxembourg announced plans to abolish charges for anyone using trains, trams and buses. Beginning next spring, public transport across the country will be free for all.  The measure extends an existing scheme allowing those under the age of 20 to travel free on the country’s public transportation network.

One of the driving forces behind the move is tackling air pollution, largely caused by motor vehicles. In the capital city of Luxembourg, traffic congestion is a serious problem, where a study has suggested that drivers in 2016 spent an average of 33 hours in traffic jams. Across Europe, air pollution is estimated to cause half a million premature deaths each year.

Beyond Luxembourg, the idea of fare-free public transport has been gaining ground. In September, Dunkirk became the largest city in Europe to introduce free transit on its entire bus network. And last summer, Estonia extended to the whole country a free public transport scheme that has been operating in the capital, Tallinn, since 2013. There’s also growing interest in developing fare-free transport in Germany and Paris.

Free public transport: the driving factors

While environmental and public health considerations have pushed the idea of free public transport up the political agenda, the measure is also seen as a way of boosting local economies and tackling social exclusion.

Tallinn’s city authorities believe that free public transport is not only good for those on low incomes, but also for persuading the better off to leave their cars at home while enjoying life in the city’s restaurants, cafes and shops. It’s also beneficial for the municipal finances: every time a resident registers for the scheme, a proportion of tax is allocated to the city. According to the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office, “We earned double as much as we have lost since introducing free public transport.”

Putting the brakes on fare-free travel

But free public transport hasn’t worked everywhere, and some schemes have been withdrawn, largely because the costs have been unsustainable.

  • In the 1970s, a free transportation experiment in Rome tried and failed to persuade drivers to exchange their private vehicles for public transport.
  • Forty years after it began, a city centre free bus service in Seattle was dropped as part of a cost-cutting programme in 2012.
  • Also in 2012, Portland’s inner city free public transport system, introduced in 1975, was withdrawn under a package of service cuts.
  • In 2014, spiralling costs forced the Belgian city of Hasselt to abandon a free transport programme that had been in operation since 1997.

Cost is also a factor giving pause for thought to cities considering new free public transport schemes. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is keen on the idea, but needs to take account of the revenue implications. Transport fares account for a third of the city’s transport budget, and universal fare-free travel would open up a funding gap of €3.5 billion a year. For the time being, she has proposed free public transport for children under 11.

Here, there, but not everywhere

The main point of free public transport is to encourage more people to leave their cars at home, resulting in reduced traffic congestion and better air quality. The big challenge is developing a public transport system that goes a long way to matching the flexibility, convenience and door-to-door travel times of private vehicles.

In 2016, a study of the Tallinn scheme found that, while public transport use increased by 14%, car use declined by only 5%. The biggest increase in public transport use came not from drivers, but from pedestrians and cyclists, whose journeys on foot or by bike fell by 35-40%.

Elsewhere, research has suggested that fare-free public transport is more suited to smaller communities than to big cities. A 2012 study of 39 fare-free transit schemes in the United States found that most were successful in attracting greater public transport usage. However, these schemes were mostly in small municipalities, holiday resorts, and university towns.

This research echoed the findings from a previous study, which also argued that eliminating fares for specific groups, such as students and older people, would be more effective than universal free transport in addressing traffic congestion in larger cities.

In the UK, this targeted approach has been adopted for older people, many of whom can travel by bus free of charge. In London, accompanied children under 11 can travel for free on the tube, DLR, Overground and TfL rail services. But, while students and young people can benefit from reduced fare schemes, the UK has not followed the example of the Netherlands, where students can travel on buses and trams for free.

All aboard?

Back in Luxembourg, some believe that fare-free public transport will fail to address the country’s traffic congestion and air pollution problems, and could actually make things worse for commuters. Another blogger has suggested that the scheme will not persuade drivers to leave the car at home:

“An alternative way of levelling the playing field between car driving and public transport without inducing even more people to travel is to increase the petrol tax. Indeed, petrol prices in Luxembourg are markedly lower than in neighbouring Germany, Belgium and France, which may well contribute to Luxembourgers’ reliance on cars.”

Many of those advocating free transport schemes are not setting out a one-size-fits-all approach. As the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office observes, the diversity of schemes in operation should encourage transport authorities to consider what’s right for their localities:

“Municipalities should be brave to use their city as a testing ground to find out what system is realistic for them to implement.”

Idox congratulates the winners of the RTPI Research Excellence Awards 2018

Quality of placemaking and the role of planning in supporting wellbeing were key themes among the winners of the 2018 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Awards for Research Excellence, which were announced this week.

These awards are unique in recognising the best spatial planning research from the RTPI’s accredited planning schools, and highlighting the positive contribution of academic research and consultancy within policy and practice.

Idox is proud to have supported the awards since 2015, and this year we again sponsored three of the five awards (the Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, the Consultancy Award, and the Student Award).

Tom Kenny, RTPI’s acting deputy head of policy and research, was enthusiastic about the winners and commended entries:

“The winners and highly commended entries have demonstrated how academic researchers can positively reach out to practitioners and policymakers with insights and findings to inform and influence their work.”

Setting standards for green infrastructure

The Sir Peter Hall Award went to a project exploring how green infrastructure can be better planned and recognises the wide benefits of the creation of the UK’s first green infrastructure benchmark.

The “Building with Nature” benchmark defines and sets the standard for high quality green infrastructure design and aims to address the gap between policy aspirations and practical deliverability. It results from the team’s research which revealed that uncertainty surrounds what constitutes high quality green infrastructure and that delivery is inconsistent.

The project brought together partners from academia and the third sector – Gemma Jerome (Gloucester Wildlife Trust and the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, University of the West of England), Danielle Sinnett, Nick Smith, Tom Calvert, Sarah Burgess, Louise King (Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, University of the West of England).

Planning for healthier outcomes

The Consultancy Award was awarded to a study that helped planners in Southwark, London, achieve healthier outcomes. The research found that building trust with local communities is crucial to understanding perceptions around health issues, and that there is concrete evidence showing that changes in built environment design such as street layouts can improve the health of residents.

The winning project was ‘Healthy Planning and Regeneration: Innovations in Community Engagement Policy and Monitoring’ involved Helen Pineo (BRE and Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering, UCL), Simon Bevan, Andrew Ruck, Clizia Deidda (Southwark Council).

Cross-cutting impactful research

A study led by a team at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London won the Academic Award for exploring the issue of the low quality of residential dwellings converted from offices without the need for planning permission, following the deregulation of the planning system in England in 2013.

Just 30% of converted ‘studio flats’ meet national space standards, and many office conversions in the middle of industrial estates have undergone barely any changes to make them fit for habitation.

The winning project was ‘Assessing the Impacts of Extending Permitted Development Rights to Office-to-Residential Change of Use in England’ – Ben Clifford, Jessica Ferm, Nicola Livingstone, Patricia Canelas (Bartlett School of Planning, University College London).

The Early Career Award went to the project ‘Estimates of Transaction Costs in Transfer of Development Rights Programs’ – Sina Shahab (School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin), J. Peter Clinch (Geary Institute, University College Dublin), Eoin O’Neill (University College Dublin)

And the Student Award went to ‘What do they know? The Power and Potential of Story in Planning’ – Jason Matthew Slade (Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield).


The full list of shortlisted finalists for the 2018 RTPI Awards for Research Excellence are available here. We also interviewed the winner of the 2016 Sir Peter Hall Award for Wider Engagement, Dr Paul Cowie from the University of Newcastle, about the impact of winning the award for the Town Meeting project, which used theatre to engage communities in planning.

We blog regularly on planning and environmental matters. Read some of our other articles:

City trees: green infrastructure to help cities clear the air

This long, hot summer has certainly been one to remember. But while many of us have enjoyed the sunshine, the soaring temperatures have had a critical effect on air quality, particularly in urban areas. In London and some other UK cities, pollution warnings were issued during the July heatwave.

The hidden killer

Air pollution in Europe is a bigger killer than obesity or alcohol. In the UK, 40,000 deaths a year are attributable to the effects of poor air quality. During the summer months, cities become heat islands that push air pollution to ever more dangerous levels. This summer has seen reports of increased numbers of people, particularly children, admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties, which many have blamed on air pollution.

As we’ve previously reported, in 2017 and 2018, national, regional and city authorities are acting to improve air quality, and around the world urban planners are trying out innovative ideas to combat the heat island effect. Last year, we blogged about Milan’s Bosco Verticale – a ground-breaking project that installed thousands of plants on the balconies of two residential tower blocks. The towers absorb 30 tons of CO2 a year and produce 19 tons of oxygen a day. Noise and heat are also reduced, and the buildings provide habitat for more than 20 species of birds.

Another innovative product, Voyager, has been developed by Idox Transport to enable road users to monitor travel information, including air quality and road accidents. The comprehensive travel information system helps drivers avoid congestion hotspots and takes the stress out of planning a journey.

Clearing the air

One important way of improving urban air quality is to increase the number of trees and plants in towns and cities. But all too often the barriers to tree planting in urban areas can be hard to overcome.

Which is why the “City Trees” project is so significant. Designed by a German startup, a City Tree is a “living wall” of irrigated mosses with the pollution-absorbing power of almost 300 trees. A rainwater-collection unit is built into the City Tree, as well as a nutrient tank and irrigation system, allowing the assembly to water itself.

Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Oslo were among the first European cities to install City Trees, and in the UK they’ve appeared on the streets of NewcastleGlasgow and London

There is evidence that green infrastructure can have significant effects on air quality. However, recent studies have indicated that, while vegetation and trees are beneficial for air quality, they cannot be viewed as a solution to the overall problem of poor air quality. That requires a coordinated approach to tackling the causes of air pollution, including diesel emissions from transport.

City Trees may not have all the answers to tackling the hidden killers in our air, but they are helping to blunt the impact of air pollution, helping us all to breathe a little more easily.


You can read more about efforts to tackle air pollution in our previous blog posts:

Idox Transport provides a range of products and services to support strategic and localised transport control. Its solutions are designed to ease congestion, improve air quality, detect and manage incidents and promote ‘green wave’ travel.

SPEL Conference 2018 open for bookings

SPEL Conference 2018 bannerWe’re excited to announce that this year’s Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is on Thursday 13 September in Edinburgh, and there’s already a great lineup of speakers confirmed.

This conference remains the flagship conference in its field, reflecting our commitment to supporting knowledge sharing and excellence within planning and the built environment professions.

The last year has witnessed many developments which impact on the planning system and the conference will provide a space for the planning and environmental law community to discuss and debate these.

Key topics

This year is the 28th SPEL Conference and we’re focusing on two key themes – the Planning Bill and wider environmental matters.

In May, the Stage 1 Report on the Planning (Scotland) Bill was released. Whilst some proposals appear to be going through the process relatively unchallenged, there are others which will be subject to further scrutiny.

As we anticipate what a future planning system is going to look like, planning reform is not the only driver of change. The Energy Strategy, climate change, the 2021 Landfill ban and the National Transport Strategy will also impact on planning.

As usual, we’ll also be reflecting on recent case law and considering how it relates to daily practice. The conference is an excellent opportunity for solicitors and planners to refresh their knowledge of recent changes in planning and environmental law, as well as providing time for quality networking.

Conference programme

The programme features a wide range of speakers, bringing perspectives from the private sector, local government planning, academia and central government to bear on the issues.

Confirmed speakers this year include:

  • Mark Lazarowicz, Terra Firma Chambers
  • Pippa Robertson, Aurora Planning
  • Archie Rintoul, former Chief Valuer Scotland
  • Karen Heywood, Interim Chief Reporter, Planning & Environmental Appeals Division, Scottish Government
  • Karen Turner, Director of the Centre for Energy Policy, University of Strathclyde
  • Greg Lloyd, Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning, Ulster University
  • Lesley Martin, RSA Scotland
  • Laura Tainsh, Partner, Davidson Chalmers
  • Russell Henderson, Associate Director, RPS

We’re pleased that Douglas Armstrong QC will be chairing the conference.

If you’re interested in planning or environmental law in Scotland then SPEL Conference 2018 is the perfect chance to hear about the latest developments and network with others.


The 2018 Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Conference is on 13 September at the COSLA Conference Centre, Edinburgh.

The conference programme and booking form are available here.

The conference is supported by Terra Firma Chambers.

Can a city ever be truly ‘carbon neutral’?

Manchester Skyline. Image: Ian Carroll (CC BY 2.0)

This guest blog was written by Joe Blakey, PhD Researcher and Sherilyn MacGregor, Reader in Environmental Politics, at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

Upon becoming Greater Manchester’s first elected mayor, Andy Burnham announced his ambition to make the city-region one of the greenest in Europe. In his Mayor’s manifesto, the former MP and Labour leadership candidate, committed to “a new, accelerated ambition for Greater Manchester on the green economy and carbon neutrality”. If achieved, Manchester would be transformed from one-time poster city for Britain’s dirty past to a decarbonised oasis in the post-industrial north-west of England. What it will take to realise this vision was the topic of a “Green Summit” held in Manchester on March 21.

The summit brought together some of the best minds from Greater Manchester’s universities and businesses, local activists and residents to debate how to “achieve carbon neutrality as early as possible”, ideally by 2050. Leading up to the summit, expert workshops and “listening events” were held across the region, in order to inform a forthcoming Green Charter, the plan for how the city will become “carbon neutral”.

We argue that the concept of “carbon neutrality” is a lofty ambition, but it needs unpacking before anyone gets too excited about its potential. The idea that a zero carbon target is the best driver for creating a city-region and a planet that’s inclusive and liveable for all raises important questions.

Understanding carbon

Carbon neutrality, or “zero-carbon”, is a curious term. NASA remarks that “carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilisations – our homes, our means of transport – are built on carbon”. Even our bodies are 18.5% carbon. Ridding our cities of carbon suddenly seems absurd. Removing the “backbone of our life on Earth” is surely not on Burnham’s eco-agenda. So what does “carbon neutral by 2050” actually mean? Understanding a little about carbon footprinting helps to expose the nuances and silences behind the ambition.

Carbon is emitted at various points within the production, transportation and consumption of goods and services, but establishing responsibility for these emissions depends on your standpoint. Is it the consumer, the manufacturer, the haulage firm, the investor, the source country or the destination country? Our actions and impacts do not respect political boundaries.

Governments typically count carbon emissions following guidelines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Taking a “territorially-based” approach, only the direct carbon emissions (and removals) taking place within a certain city or a country are counted, along with those from the production of the energy consumed. “Carbon” stands for a whole raft of greenhouse gases, including CO₂. This approach underpins declarations of successes and failures worldwide, but it’s just one way to allocate carbon emissions. And herein lies the issue.

An alternative “consumption-based” accounting is more often used by environmental NGOs such as the WWF or some parts of the UK government. This approach counts the total emissions from goods and services (including travel) consumed by a person, city or country, regardless of where they occurred. Under consumption-based accounting, eating an imported steak means factoring in shipping emissions, the plastic used in packaging, and the emissions from the cow itself – all of which take place far outside of the typical “footprint”. One recent analysis found a group of large cities across the world emitted 60% more carbon when considered like this.

But will Greater Manchester, the aspiring “Northern Powerhouse”, really want to include emissions from such key drivers of economic growth? The city-region has a busy airport, for instance, that it might be convenient to exclude under “zero carbon”. Greater Manchester’s ambition may be laudable, but the zero-carbon definition risks side-lining much-needed action in other areas.

There is some degree of hope. Greater Manchester is implementing a new standard which extends the IPCC’s approach, also considering emissions from residents’ travel beyond Greater Manchester and waste disposed of beyond the city-region. This is significantly more ambitious than a territorial-based approach. But, even if “zero-carbon” was defined under this approach, there would still be difficult questions as to what extent aviation emissions would be included – if at all – not to mention other consumption-based emissions, such as those from imported food.

Cleaner, greener, and lower carbon

In any case, the city needs environmental policies beyond the focus on becoming “carbon neutral”. Litter is one of the top resident concerns about environmental quality, for instance, while a recent study by MMU’s Gina Cavan found many people in the city have limited access to green and blue spaces. Research by our colleagues found the greatest level of microplastics ever recorded anywhere on the planet in Manchester’s very own River Tame.

No doubt the mayor and his team will be concerned about these other problems too. But the pollution crises and the lack of access to green spaces are questions of environmental injustice, and their root causes will not necessarily be addressed by carbon neutrality. To avoid obscuring other areas of action, it’s vital that claims about a “carbon neutral” future clearly state what they are referring to.

Carbon neutrality doesn’t cover everything – it might only be concerned with decarbonising energy and in-boundary emissions. If Greater Manchester is serious about becoming greener, cleaner and inclusive, then there needs to be accountability for other perspectives on emissions responsibility, including those associated with consumption and aviation.


Joe Blakey is a PhD Researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester; Sherilyn MacGregor is Reader in Environmental Politics at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

If you enjoyed this blog, why not read some of our other blogs:


How low can they go? Cities are taking action to reduce air pollution and save lives

Air pollution is a bigger killer in Europe than obesity or alcohol: nearly half a million Europeans die each year from its effects.

Particulate matter (a complex mixture of extremely small dust particles and liquid droplets) and nitrogen dioxide (an invisible, but foul smelling gas) are particularly harmful to health.  As the New Scientist has explained:

“…nitrogen dioxide lowers birthweight, stunts lung growth in children and increases the risk of respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease. Particulate pollutants like soot cause a wider range of problems, including lung cancer.”

Motor vehicles are the main source of these emissions in urban areas. For this reason, European Union regulations introduced in 2010 set down that nitrogen oxide should average no more than 40 micrograms per cubic metre over a year. These limits are regularly breached. By the end of January this year, London had reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole of 2018. Scientists say that even these limits are unsafe: the 30,000 deaths each year attributed to particulate pollution are due to exposure levels below the legal limit.

Getting into the zone

Many local authorities have been trying to tackle the issue by getting the most polluting vehicles out of their city centres.  As Traffic Technology International has noted:

“From Athens to Aberdeen, and from London to Ljubljana, there is an eclectic smorgasbord of initiatives with over 200 low emission zones (LEZ) around Europe excluding more polluting vehicles, and some cities employing road-user charging to deter vehicles from entering.”

In the UK, Glasgow is set to become Scotland’s first low emissions zone, while Oxford could become the world’s first zero emissions zone, which would exclude all non-electric vehicles from the city centre by 2035.

T Time in London

London has adopted especially ambitious goals to clean up the capital’s air. As of October 2017, older vehicles driving in London between 7am and 6pm have needed either to meet the minimum toxic emission standards (Euro 4/IV for both petrol and diesel vehicles and Euro 3 for motorised tricycles and quadricycles) or to pay an extra daily charge of £10.00 (in addition to the £11.50 Congestion Charge).

Air quality campaigners have welcomed this “T Charge”, but not everyone is happy. The Federation of Small Businesses has voiced concern that the charge will have a negative impact on small and micro-businesses that are already struggling with high property, employment and logistics costs. Shaun Bailey, a Conservative member of the Greater London Assembly, has described the T Charge – and the mayor’s plan to bring forward to 2019 the launch of London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) – as “vanity projects” that will have little effect on air quality.

National demands and local plans

London’s T Charge is one way of tackling air pollution, but there are other methods, such as retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel and supporting cyclists. Some UK cities are already taking action, while in Germany and Belgium, even more radical ideas are being mooted.

Last summer, the UK government set out its plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The document made it clear that local authorities have a leading role to play in achieving improvements in air quality.

By the end of this month, local authorities were expected to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue, with final plans to be submitted by December. The government promised support for councils, including a £255m Implementation Fund to help them prepare and deliver their plans, and the opportunity to bid for additional money from a Clean Air Fund.

It was hoped that these measures would lower the poisonous emissions. However, last month the High Court ruled that the government’s approach to tackling pollution was not sufficient, and ordered urgent changes. Even if the subsequent plan is accepted, many feel that the only sure way to solve the problem is to eliminate traffic from our cities. Others counter that this will damage the economy.

The battle of Britain’s air quality has only just begun.


Our previous articles on air quality include:

How urban farmers are learning to grow food without soil or natural light

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

This guest blog was written by Silvio Caputo, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

Growing food in cities became popular in Europe and North America during and immediately after World War II. Urban farming provided citizens with food, at a time when resources were desperately scarce. In the decades that followed, parcels of land which had been given over to allotments and city farms were gradually taken up for urban development. But recently, there has been a renewed interest in urban farming – albeit for very different reasons than before.

As part of a recent research project investigating how urban farming is evolving across Europe, I found that in countries where growing food was embedded in the national culture, many people have started new food production projects. There was less uptake in countries such as Greece and Slovenia, where there was no tradition of urban farming. Yet a few community projects had recently been started in those places too.

Today’s urban farmers don’t just grow food to eat; they also see urban agriculture as a way of increasing the diversity of plants and animals in the city, bringing people from different backgrounds and age groups together, improving mental and physical health and regenerating derelict neighbourhoods.

Many new urban farming projects still struggle to find suitable green spaces. But people are finding inventive solutions; growing food in skips or on rooftops, on sites that are only temporarily free, or on raised beds in abandoned industrial yards. Growers are even using technologies such as hydroponics, aquaculture and aquaponics to make the most of unoccupied spaces.

Something fishy

Hydroponic systems were engineered as a highly space and resource efficient form of farming. Today, they represent a considerable source of industrially grown produce; one estimate suggests that, in 2016, the hydroponic vegetable market was worth about US$6.9 billion worldwide.

Hydroponics enable people to grow food without soil and natural light, using blocks of porous material where the plants’ roots grow, and artificial lighting such as low-energy LED. A study on lettuce production found that although hydroponic crops require significantly more energy than conventionally grown food, they also use less water and have considerably higher yields.

Growing hydroponic crops usually requires sophisticated technology, specialist skills and expensive equipment. But simplified versions can be affordable and easy to use.

Mandy Zammit/Grow Up, Author Provided

Hemmaodlat is an organisation based in Malmö, in a neighbourhood primarily occupied by low-income groups and immigrants. The area is densely built, and there’s no green space available to grow food locally. Plus, the Swedish summer is short and not always ideal for growing crops. Instead, the organisation aims to promote hydroponic systems among local communities, as a way to grow fresh food using low-cost equipment.

The Bristol Fish Project is a community-supported aquaponics farm, which breeds fish and uses the organic waste they produce to fertilise plants grown hydroponically. GrowUp is another aquaponics venture located in an East London warehouse – they grow food and farm fish using only artificial light. Similarly, Growing Underground is an enterprise that produces crops in tunnels, which were originally built as air raid shelters during World War II in London.

The next big thing?

The potential to grow food in small spaces, under any environmental conditions, are certainly big advantages in an urban context. But these technologies also mean that the time spent outdoors, weathering the natural cycles of the seasons, is lost. Also, hydroponic systems require nutrients that are often synthesised chemically – although organic nutrients are now becoming available. Many urban farmers grow their food following organic principles, partly because the excessive use of chemical fertilisers is damaging soil fertility and polluting groundwater.

To see whether these drawbacks would put urban growers off using hydroponic systems, my colleagues and I conducted a pilot study in Portsmouth. We installed small hydroponic units in two local community gardens, and interviewed volunteers and visitors to the gardens. Many of the people we spoke to were well informed about hydroponic technology, and knew that some of the vegetables sold in supermarkets today are produced with this system.

Many were fascinated by the idea of growing food without soil within their community projects, but at the same time reluctant to consume the produce because of the chemical nutrients used. A few interviewees were also uncomfortable with the idea that the food was not grown naturally. We intend to repeat this experiment in the near future, to see how public opinion changes over time.

And while we don’t think hydroponic systems can replace the enjoyment that growing food in soil can offer, they can save water and produce safe food, either indoors or outdoors, in a world with increasingly scarce resources. Learning to use these new technologies, and integrating them into existing projects, can only help to grow even more sustainable food.

As with many technological advancements, it could be that a period of slow acceptance will be followed by rapid, widespread uptake. Perhaps the fact that IKEA is selling portable hydroponic units, while hydroponic cabinets are on the market as components of kitchen systems, is a sign that this technology is primed to enter mainstream use.


Silvio Caputo is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture, University of Portsmouth.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

If you enjoyed this blog, why not read some of our other blogs:

Could deposit return schemes turn the tide of plastic pollution?

For decades, plastic has been regarded as something of a miracle product. Lightweight, durable and versatile, it’s been used for practically everything, from food packaging and water pipes to aircraft and insulation systems.

But all of a sudden it seems that plastic has become public enemy number one.  In January, the Iceland supermarket chain announced plans to eliminate or drastically reduce plastic packaging of all its own-label products by the end of 2023. Also in January, the UK government set out its ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste within 25 years.

A rising tide

The new war on plastic is largely to do with an increased awareness about the highly damaging impact of plastic waste on the planet. Research has found that, since the 1950s, nine billion tonnes of plastic has been produced, a figure that’s likely to rise to 30 billion tonnes by the end of the century. Over eight million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year, threatening marine and bird life, as well as having a wider impact on human health.

The difficulty of disposing of plastic waste has been amplified by China’s decision last summer to ban the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including most plastics. The news was a body blow to the waste management sector, which has relied on China’s dominant position in recycling to dispose of plastic waste.

Tackling the problem, one bottle at a time

More recently, the focus has been on single use plastic bottles for water and other soft drinks. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee last year reported that 13 billion plastic bottles are used each year in the UK. Only 57% of these are recycled, with the rest going to landfill/incineration or litter.

Various solutions have been suggested to reduce plastic bottle waste, such as greater provision of public drinking fountains and bottle refill points.

Another idea is the development of deposit return schemes (DRS). These involve consumers paying a small deposit on top of the price of a bottled drink. The deposit is refunded when the bottle is returned to an in-store collection point or a reverse vending machine. The bottles are then collected and recycled into new plastic bottles.

A 2015 study by Eunomia for Zero Waste Scotland considered the feasibility of a DRS being introduced to Scotland. The research included case studies of deposit return schemes in Germany and Scandinavia. In Germany, the introduction of the deposit on one-way beverage packaging was a big success with 98.5% of refillable bottles being returned by consumers. And in Norway, 96% of bottles are returned for plastic recycling.

The Eunomia study concluded that none of the challenges posed by introducing a DRS to Scotland was insuperable, and in September 2017, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a Scottish DRS. Shortly afterwards, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommended the introduction of a DRS in England, arguing that it would recycle more plastic bottles, save money and create jobs in the long run.

Deposit return schemes – pros and cons

Writing in the January 2018 ENDS Report, Dominic Hogg, chairman of Eunomia, described four benefits of DRS:

  • The return rates can be high, and the climate change benefits associated with recycling the materials are correspondingly higher;
  • Because materials returned are of a high level of purity, they are sought after by reprocessors;
  • Because they now have meaningful value, the rate of littering of used beverage containers falls by about 95%
  • A DRS would reduce the prevalence of plastic found in the marine environment.

However, some local authorities have expressed concern that they would lose money as people would use the DRS rather than recycle through local authorities’ kerbside systems.

Reservations have also been voiced by the soft drinks sector. AG Barr believes that “…the scope for fraud in a Scottish DRS is huge. On a small scale we could see people scavenging in bins for containers, as is the US experience. On a medium scale there is the potential for local authority amenity centre looting. And on a larger scale there is the very real possibility of cross-border trafficking of deposit-bearing containers.”

However, having previously opposed DRS, one major soft drinks company has undergone a change of heart. “A well-designed DRS, targeting the littering of on-the-go soft drinks, could have a role to play alongside reforms and improvements for the current systems,” said Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners.

A future role for plastic

While there is a growing recognition of the need to manage plastic waste, there’s also an understanding that plastic can’t simply be uninvented.

WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), which promotes sustainable waste management, has recognised the value of plastic as a resource:

“Take health care, for example. Most disposable medical items – insulin pens, IV tubes, inhalation masks, and so on – use plastic as a core component because it is sterile and reduces the risk of infection. Plastic packaging preserves and protects food. According to the US Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), plastic film extends the shelf life of a cucumber from three days to 14.”

Even so, it’s clear that we’ve reached a watershed moment concerning DRS. As Dominic Hogg concludes:

“Policymakers should make it clear that this is going to happen. The naysayers can choose either to be part of the solution’s design or to have it imposed upon them.”


If you found this blog post interesting, you might also like to read some of our previous articles on waste management: