COP26, ESG, Sustainability, Sustainable Legacies

As the world looks to Glasgow for the COP26 conference on climate change, we’ll be discussing some of the changes our industry needs to make and reflecting on the COP debate on the AECOM BlogJoin the discussion on social media by following us on Twitter and LinkedIn. Find more information in our special COP26 edition of our “Future of Infrastructure” report:

As world leaders gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit, they might spare a thought for this research that shows Glasgow has one of the highest levels of fine particulates in the UK. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for air quality have recently been made more stringent and recommend that particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) should be limited to 10 micrograms per cubic meter (mg/m3) of air. But in in Glasgow, one of the UKs largest cities, concentration levels reach 16 micrograms per cubic meter.

Why does this matter? The finer material smaller than 2.5 mm (micrometers, where 1mm is equal to 0.001 mm) in size is specifically hazardous to human health, wherein it is accepted there is no safe threshold for exposure.  Some of the poorest social groups are often exposed disproportionally to higher concentrations, which when combined with pre-existing health conditions means they are least able to respond to measures intended to improve conditions.

This might help explain why in Glasgow, parts of which are among the most deprived areas in Scotland, some of the highest lung disease mortality rates in Britain can be found.

This is something we can all learn from. Management of particulate matter tends to focus on disrupting the pathway or reducing exposure, which is not necessarily the most sustainable long-term solution. We need to understand the source contribution and composition of the pollutants where people are being exposed to high concentrations. For example, those living near a busy road would be far more likely to be exposed to higher proportions of engine exhaust products, tyre, brake and road-wear, as well as resuspended material. 

In deprived communities where there is greater reliance on public transport or poorer underlying health that is more likely to be exacerbated by exposure to pollution, exposure profiles may be different when compared to more affluent areas. Understanding this allows solutions to be built around the population to promote engagement and accessibility. For example, encouraging adoption of public transport must be part of a wider package of affordable ticketing, high quality service, appropriate routing and integrated networking, so users are able to travel in ways that are comparable, or preferable, to private cars.

Additionally, atmospheric pollutants may potentially exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19, and so the future of public health management is must consider air quality as part of any long-term strategy.  However, plans to reassign road-space for walking and cycling has faced significant opposition from driving groups as public transport struggles to accommodate a return to normal conditions. 

We can use this information along with other sources of Big Data, such as Google informatics or Strada, to think about how people instinctively use public realm to inform how to tackle development planning and managing transport infrastructure.  This requires a deeper holistic understanding of where, when, how and why we live, work and travel to support a real-world low emission lifestyle that does not rely on any single discipline or technological solution. 

Originally published Nov 9, 2021

Author: Duncan Urquhart