Measuring the success of air quality interventions

A new paper examining the historic success of interventions to improve air quality and the resulting impact on better health and environmental outcomes, has recommended a joint solution co-created by scientists and policy leads to achieve longer lasting change.

Published today in the Royal Society’s Journal Philosophical Transactions A, by Professor Paul Monks, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Earth Observation Science at the University of Leicester, and the late Professor Martin Williams, from King’s College London, the paper argues that any policy change regarding air quality has historically been actioned due to a crisis, such as the 1943 LA smog or the 1952 London smog, but a better outcome would have been an approach focusing on a more integrated policy approach. The paper is dedicated to the memory of Martin Williams, who died suddenly this month.

The paper also argues that air pollution cannot be seen as a problem in its own right – it must be seen in context of wider areas, including climate, energy, agriculture, transportation and urban planning. The ambition to reduce emissions, improve air quality and reduce the impacts on public health and the environment are recognised, but tend to be balanced against questions of cost, technical feasibility and societal acceptability.

Professor Paul Monks said: “Air quality embraces the issues of impacts on human health, ecosystems, climate change and national heritage. A challenge always is using the lessons of the past as a good predictor of the future.

“In our paper, we have identified two phases to air quality mitigation; the first driven by an air quality ‘emergency’ as the pollution is visible and the effects can be relatively obvious, and the second driven by science that is directed towards continuous improvement. 

“A critical element of the ‘science phase’ is the evidence base - the models of evidence-based and -informed policy-making guided by the co-creation of knowledge and policy options between scientists and policy-makers, which could have the best chances of success.” 

In countries and regions where there has been a well-developed air pollution management system and where pollution levels have been systematically reduced, policy is increasingly driven by new scientific findings rather than large-scale ‘emergencies’. It is found that policies in these countries are driven by a much better evidence base than was available decades ago, so that health impact studies and cost–benefit-based policies can be successfully developed.

A contemporary example cited in the research references the current drivers for addressing air quality in India and China as being emergency-driven, where current pollution levels are high and there has not been a history of effective air pollution reduction measures, although China has recently begun to take steps to improve its air quality.