Integrating science and policy to address the impact of air pollution

An article in the journal Science, co-authored by Centre member Professor Martin Williams of the Environmental Research Group (ERG) at King’s College London, examines how science and policy have addressed air pollution effects on human health, ecosystems and climate change in Europe.

In the article, ‘From Acid Rain to Climate Change’, Professor Williams, Dr Stefan Reis of the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UK), and colleagues, discuss how scientists and policymakers, working collaboratively, have developed and implemented policies to improve air quality and reduce the impact of air pollution on human health and ecosystems.

The authors conclude that substantial improvements have been made, for example in reducing deposition of acidifying substances on soils and ecosystems in Europe since the 1970s. However, they add that there are still major challenges ahead. For example, emission levels of air pollutants in 2020 will still lead to an average loss of life expectancy by about four months, while excessive nitrogen deposition will put more than 40 per cent of Europe’s nature at risk.

Professor Williams, who is also Chairman of the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) Executive Body, said: ‘The key role played by science as an integral part of the policy process in the Convention on CLRTAP has been demonstrated again in the revised Gothenburg Protocol. In one of the few international environmental instruments to be agreed in this time of worldwide economic difficulty, science has helped steer a positive path through the problems. By incorporating the latest science at the boundary between air pollution and climate change, it has pointed the way forward for the future of the Convention.’

The authors also highlight several examples where successful collaboration between scientists and policymakers is required to develop cost-effective air pollution policies that address serious environmental issues. Their priority list includes the need to further reduce nitrogen emissions, for example in the form of ammonia from agriculture, which will help to bring down acidification of soils and eutrophication of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems.

The requirement for integrated policies on interaction between air pollution and climate change is also addressed, which would help reduce short-term climate forcers such as black carbon and ozone. They suggest that the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe's (UNECE) Convention on CLRTAP, a multilateral agreement aiming to reduce air pollution across the UNECE region, needs to work in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and conventions covering biodiversity, the marine environment and water.

Dr Reis, an environmental scientist at the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said: ‘The long-term collaboration of scientists and policymakers in the different taskforces, working groups and other bodies of the Convention is crucial in forming a robust science-policy interface. Building trust in scientific results and a fostering a better understanding of the policy process ultimately leads to better, more efficient policies.’