Humankind is influencing the composition of the atmosphere on a planetary scale through emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and short-lived greenhouse gases such as methane. We are also contributing to air pollution through emissions of precursors of ground-level ozone and aerosols, including black carbon. Air pollution is currently the largest environmental cause of premature deaths, in addition to being a substantial driver of climate change. As such, air pollution is both a result and a driver of global change in the Anthropocene. The overarching objective of the research programme Air Quality in the Context of Global Change is to support transformations to improve air quality, while recognising the connections and feedbacks of these transformation processes in a wider global context. The focus is on concrete and measurable contributions to this objective by co-generating new knowledge about possible solutions, including societal and technological changes that bring multiple benefits to stakeholders.
While looking at the issue in a wider global context, our work focuses on three distinct regions – Europe, Southern Asia, and the Arctic – with an emphasis on urban areas. These regions were chosen for several reasons. The Arctic is particularly vulnerable, with large transformations already under way and further transformations anticipated in the near future. A similarly high degree of vulnerability, albeit for very different reasons, also applies to the population of Southern Asia, one of the world’s most heavily polluted regions. In contrast to Southern Asia and the Arctic, Europe has extensive and broadly enforced regulations to ensure high air quality standards. Yet despite this, Europe is far from overcoming the challenges of air pollution. This variety of regions encompasses a range of different developmental and social contexts, social and ecological vulnerabilities, and transformation pathways.
The research questions tackled by the programme are identified using a transdisciplinary process, in close consultation with stakeholder partners and other IASS research programmes. As well as research supporting long-term, ambitious transformation goals, there is some research capacity to enable a rapid and flexible response to the critical issues of the moment, including engagement with academic and non-academic partners. The activities of the programme are grouped into the following projects:
- A research group with a general focus on the numerical modelling of air pollution, including the chemistry of tropospheric ozone and emissions of its precursors and aerosols, especially black carbon;
- SusKat, with a focus on the identification of key sources of air pollution in the Kathmandu valley, and the design and implementation of mitigation solutions;
- ClimPol, with a focus on the connections between air quality and climate change and European policy, particularly at the level of cities;
- ELIAS, with a focus on connections between air quality, climate change, and sustainability from a law and governance perspective, particularly at the international and national level;
- SMART, which aims to identify the causes, implications, and likely scenarios of Arctic resource development jointly with stakeholders to develop policy options, specifically to find sustainable transformation pathways for human-nature interactions in the Arctic.