Tag: LondonAir

“Space to Breathe” at Somerset House

Last weekend, visitors to Somerset House could enjoy a series of interactive installations around the topic of air pollution. Pollution in London regularly exceeds legal limits, often due to the heavy traffic. The Space to Breathe exhibition aimed to raise awareness of this important issue by making it accessible to people.

BackPack2SmallThe exhibition was curated by Cape Farewell and Shrinking Space, in partnership with the Environmental Research Group (ERG) here at King’s College London. The ERG also run the LondonAir website, giving Londoners up-to-date information about the air we are breathing on a daily basis.


Wearing the “Voyage on the Planet” backpack

One of the most striking pieces of the exhibition was Chih Chiu’s “Voyage on the Planet”: a glass backpack with a plant inside, connected to a facemask to block out surrounding pollution. Visitors were encouraged to try it out themselves, and to take it outside to the streets of London. Cape Farewell and Shrinking Space posted photos of this throughout the weekend. I also got the chance to try one of the backpacks, which did make me think about what I breathe in every day – even when just crossing Waterloo Bridge!


Cycling to run the bar

By using VR headsets, the exhibition also offered to experience what the Aldwych could look like in a greener future: think lorries and cars replaced by pedestrians and green space. Artist Caroline Wright asked people to sing a single note to see how where they live affects their lung volume, and to collate the voices of visitors in a single Sounding Scape. On the Terrace, Solar Sound System ran a bar powered on solar energy and bicycles: two people cycle to keep the music on, while to more cycle to get the juice presses working.

Air pollution is something that is largely invisible, especially when it comes to NO₂. Throughout the weekend, the artists and experts at Space to Breathe made it visible through the different installations. Photos of the whole weekend can be found by visiting Cape Farewell, Shrinking Space, Cultural King’s and LondonAir.

Part 3 of 3: What can I do about air pollution?

Welcome back to our series on air quality! In previous posts, we focused on why pollution matters and what the main causes are in London. In this final part, Timothy Baker from the Environmental Research Group (ERG) at King’s offers his advice on how individuals can protect themselves from pollution, and what they can do to help clean up London’s air.

Living in London, we are exposed to varying levels of pollution every day. As Tim Baker discussed in the first part of this series, the places where we are most exposed might be surprising – such as inside our cars or taxis. Although walking or cycling may be better for our health than being inside a car, we are still exposed to pollution. We asked Tim Baker what the method for reducing this exposure was, and he suggested planning routes carefully:

“It’s actually all common sense. If you avoid the traffic when walking or cycling somewhere, you will dramatically reduce your exposure levels. Even just going one street back from the main road will probably halve your pollution exposure. It’s as simple as that.”

To make this easier, the ERG’s London Air website offe_DSC6991rs street-by-street pollution maps, enabling Londoners to plan a route avoiding the most polluted areas. The team is also planning a mapping service that would automatically give users the least polluted route to their destination. Those most at risk, such as people suffering from existing respiratory problems, should check pollution forecasts before undertaking strenuous tasks outside, and potentially wait if pollution is expected to clear later in the day.

There is also a range of things our expert Tim Baker believes individuals can do to contribute to tackling pollution in London. As a large proportion of pollution is due to transport, the first step is not using a car to get around the city. Cycling or walking to work would reduce traffic, often get people to their destination quicker, and even though cyclists are exposed to pollution, Tim Baker claims the health benefits of cycling offset the risk of exposure. Another option is to take public transport. Responding to a recent initiative to publish air quality data on polluted days at bus stops, the expert welcomed the idea and said:

“At the end of the [air quality] message they should add ‘Thank you for doing something to help’. Because if someone sees it at a bus stop, they are already helping the problem by using public transport.”

If driving is necessary, people should think carefully about what kind of cars to get.
While cars powered by alternative fuels may be more environmentally friendly than those powered by petrol or diesel, they are still expensive. Engine size should also be kept in mind. “If you’re looking for what is going to have the least impact [on air quality], and is a cheap vehicle, it’s probably currently going to be a small petrol engine”, says Tim Baker. Finally, something that King’s, businesses and even households should reconsider is the necessity of having items delivered as soon as possible. Many deliveries are not required immediately, and instructing companies to wait until several items can be delivered at once is an easy way to reduce traffic on the roads. At London Bridge, local businesses suggested to have consolidated deliveries at night, and have campaigned to keep their streets pedestrianised during the day. As more and more businesses get involved and even help fund measuring equipment, the expert says everybody else will hopefully follow soon to help combat pollution in London.

1917496_212679981259_3444746_nThis was the final part of our series on air pollution in London. We would like to thank Timothy Baker for taking the time to answer our questions and share his advice with us. For regular updates on air quality in London, visit the ERG’s London Air website and Twitter. To keep in touch with the Sustainability Team, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or email us at sustainability@kcl.ac.uk.

Part 2 of 3: The causes of London’s pollution problem

Welcome back to our series on air quality! Last time, we talked about why air pollution matters. Today, the focus will be on the main causes of air pollution in London – and why the Volkswagen emissions scandal might have had some positive consequences after all. Again, Timothy Baker from the Environmental Research Group (ERG) at King’s has shared his knowledge with us, and given us his expert view on what governments should do to tackle pollution. 

When it comes to the causes of pollution, many might be quick to blame large vehicles such as lorries. But according to Tim Baker, one of the main culprits for air pollution in London are diesel cars. They were often seen as the more environmentally friendly option compared to petrol cars, but while technology in petrol has improved rapidly in recent years, diesel cars have lagged behind. “The Department for Transport tested the 15 most popular diesel vehicles, and on average they were 4 to 7 times over the legal limit”, says Tim Baker in our interview. Petrol cars on the other hand only achieve somewhere around 10% of the emissions they are legally allowed to achieve, he claims. ITF066044RGB75Under certain conditions, many diesel cars will also switch off their emission controls. Legal loopholes enabled them to do this when the outside temperature falls below 18°C. While manufacturers claim this is to protect the engine, average temperatures in London mean this causes significant problems for the city’s pollution levels, as cold periods are often when pollution builds up. This is made worse by the rising number of diesel vehicles on London’s roads.

“What we have seen is that the advances in technology in some vehicles have been massively offset by the change in fleet, especially in London. 10 years ago, probably around 15% of cars on the road were diesel. The year before last, more than half of the registered new cars were diesel.”

Some weather conditions can also contribute to higher pollution levels. Pollution can build up when it is not windy, and some of the worst pollution episodes happen on cold, foggy mornings when pollutants are trapped close to the ground. In addition to this, London’s geographical location means it may also be exposed to pollution from continental Europe. This is usually the case during spring, when wind carries pollution from the Netherlands, Belgium or France to London. However, the opposite is true for large parts of the year, carrying emissions from South East England to continental Europe. IND053Therefore, even local pollution might require cross-border efforts to be tackled effectively. “It’s also someone else’s local emissions. And where are our local emissions going when they are not causing us a problem? They are going to somebody else”, says Tim Baker.

To solve London’s pollution problem, he says governments need to be brave, and not afraid to make difficult decisions. “Everyone says it’s the lorries. But if you actually want to solve the urban pollution problem in London, in a stroke, it’s ban diesel cars”, Tim Baker tells us in the interview. While this might be a drastic measure, he believes the public is now more aware of just how bad diesel vehicles are for air quality. “The Volkswagen emissions scandal did more for publicity than anything that has been done in the previous years of trying to get the story across”, the expert tells us, explaining that when the first London sites exceeded annual limits earlier this year, the press coverage had changed compared to previous years. “Usually they are calling us to explain why air pollution is bad for you. That didn’t happen this time – they actually started their articles with ‘We know air pollution is bad for you, it’s diesel that is causing it’.” As much of the changes to London’s car fleet have happened in the last 10 years, Tim Baker believes these changes should be reversible over the next 10 years. However, he is not sure governments are ready to do this:

“Is it likely to happen? Probably not. It should be possible, but I suspect there isn’t the bravery. I hope I’m proved wrong”

1917496_212679981259_3444746_nThe next and final part of our air pollution series will focus on the actions each individual can take to both protect themselves from pollution, and to help clean up London’s air. In the meantime, you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more updates, as well as the ERG’s Twitter and website for regular pollution updates and forecasts. 

Part 1 of 3: Air quality in London – meet the experts at King’s College London

An interview with air quality expert Timothy Baker

Air pollution is a hot topic in London. Mayor Sadiq Khan has raised the issue repeatedly over the last few months, promising an ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) in central London by 2019. King’s College London is contributing to the debate through the work done by the Environmental Research Group (ERG). The ERG is a leading provider of air quality research in the UK and shares information on air quality in London with the public, including “nowcasts” showing current pollution levels, and pollution forecasts. The Sustainability Team met up with Timothy Baker from the ERG’s Measurement team to talk about the work of the ERG and the dangers of and solutions to pollution. This blog post is the first of three in our series on air quality, and will focus on why air quality research in London matters.


If you have been following the King’s College London Twitter account recently, you will have noticed their Q&A on pollution with members of the ERG. It enabled anyone interested to pose their questions to the experts, and encouraged an open discussion on pollution. Our expert Tim Baker explains why bringing attention to air pollution is important:

“Unfortunately it is one of those stories that will only get worse and worse. As more and more research goes on, we realise it affects us in so many more ways than what was originally thought.”

According to Tim, latest research shows that the health impacts of pollution can go far beyond the respiratory system. For example, particles could enter the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular problems. Children are one of the groups most at risk, especially since they may be exposed to high pollution levels on their way to school. The consequences of this are often long-term. Tim Baker explains that researchers looked at how pollution affects schoolchildren’s lung functions in Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

“They got some strong results that living in an area that has elevated pollution results in stunted lung growth in children. And one of the issues with that is that you never get it back.”

Knowing one’s exposure to pollution can be equally as important as knowing which particles are in the air. This can include the location itself, as well as how long is spent at a location. While many people might be reluctant to walk or cycle along a busy road due to pollution levels, Tim Baker claims that the most polluted place on a road is often inside cars: “The car is the most polluted place to be. Even though people think ‘Oh, I don’t want to walk along that road because it’s polluted’, if you’re in a car, you’re going to be more exposed than when you’re walking or cycling.” One of the reasons for this is that if a car is stuck in traffic, as is often the case in London, passengers might be exposed to emissions from surrounding vehicles.

An area that has seen little research so far is the London Underground network. Even though up to 4.8 million passengers travel on the Tube every day, air quality measurements have been very limited until recently, and therefore it is hard to make a statement on what impact pollution on the Underground has on commuters and TfL staff members. Most measuring equipment is both expensive and bulky, making it difficult to measure air quality on the go, for example during a commute. New smaller, and more affordable, sensors are increasingly available on the market, but their measurements might not be accurate, nor give users a full picture of pollution levels. Nevertheless, they could be useful for giving indicative measurements of people’s everyday exposure to pollution. The ERG has given small sensors to office workers, ambulance drivers and schoolchildren to better understand daily exposure. Tim Baker says he is hopeful that these small, cheaper sensors will be improved in the future, as this would mean more sensors could be placed all over the city and give a better picture of air quality.

1917496_212679981259_3444746_nFor the time being, air quality measurements for London can be viewed on the LondonAir website, and the team regularly releases updates on pollution levels on Twitter. The next part of our series on air pollution will focus on what causes pollution in London, who some of the worst polluters are, and what should be done to tackle this – make sure not to miss it by following us on Twitter and Facebook