Integrated Research Observation System for Clean Air (OSCA)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences


"Poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to Public Health in the UK" (DEFRA, 2017) and is consequently a focus of a range of regional and national policy interventions. However, since our transport systems, the way we heat our homes, our energy supply, our use of solvents and our agricultural systems are all changing, we know that profound changes in emissions and trends in air pollutants are likely in the coming years and indeed are already taking place. We need to understand our changing atmospheric composition, to ensure air quality policy has maximum benefit for the protection of human and environmental health.

The Clean Air: Analysis and Solutions Programme identifies the need for new capability to predict future changes in the sources, emissions and atmospheric processes responsible for air pollution. The OSCA project addresses this need through a multidisciplinary research activity, combining state-of-the-science atmospheric observations, laboratory studies, new data processing tools and integrated scientific synthesis to deliver new understanding of urban air pollution. OSCA will:

-Deliver improved quantification of emissions, combining lab measurements of brake & tyre wear sources, and measurements of the total fluxes of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from the BT Tower in London. Non-exhaust emissions comprise up to 70% of traffic-derived PM10, are poorly quantified, and whose relative importance will increase with UK fleet decarbonisation. Real-world emission measurements underpin air quality predictions and avoid dependence upon manufacturer data.

-Provide a definitive, state-of-the-science assessment of UK urban air quality through exploitation of the new RCUK-funded urban air quality Supersites in London, Birmingham and Manchester to deliver comprehensive, continuous and long-term measurements of atmospheric composition. These data will characterise the changing UK pollution climate, identify subtle emission trends during implementation of regional air quality policies, and provide a key resource for evaluation of ongoing trends.

-Develop new mathematical analyses to identify emergent trends / responses to policies and apply these alongside established methods to address key science uncertainties - e.g.: to assess the trends and changing sources of NO2; to provide definitive quantification of the contributions of non-exhaust traffic, woodsmoke and cooking activities to PM; to identify trends in and contributions to ammonia emissions; to identify changes VOC emissions - precursors to ozone formation.

-Provide data and infrastructure to underpin the wider Clean Air Programme, including development and deployment of novel sensor networks (QUANT); data to validate models and health effect calculations (InSPIRE and DREaM); insight into air quality response to policy initiatives (ANTICIPATE); sensor testing and pollutant source identification (APEx).

-Enable community mobilisation through intensive field campaigns, targeted at understanding the changing gas-phase reactivity climate of the UK atmosphere (which governs production of secondary PM and ozone), and the sources and chemical composition of atmospheric aerosols.

OSCA findings will support policymakers through a range of established relationships the PIs already maintain. These include engagements within the supersite host cities, and links to relevant national bodies, including Defra, DfT, DoH, PHE and the EA. The OSCA deliverables provide important new data and novel scientific approaches central to the assessment of future changes in the sources, emissions and atmospheric processes governing air pollution in the UK - the core of WP1 of the Clean Air programme. OSCA is fully embedded into the wider programme, informing policy decisions, monitoring the impacts of decisions, and feeding public health research and outcomes.

Planned Impact

OSCA is an underpinning proposal to the UKRI Clean Air Programme and will deliver significant impact through support for multiple projects, whilst also generating wider impacts in its own right. The main direct beneficiaries of the research are the agencies invested in the activities of the programme, national and regional policy makers and public health professionals. Since the Met Office and STFC are delivering the Framework for Clean Air Analysis in WP4 they are clear beneficiaries of the outputs. The key stakeholders at national level are the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs; the Department for Transport; and Public Health England. At regional level key stakeholders are the combined authorities in London; Manchester and Birmingham and Transport for Greater Manchester and Transport for London. PHE Consultants in the regions provide public health advice to regional government.

OSCA project outcomes result from PIs working closely with policy makers at regional and national level to identify key areas of concern. Emissions of NOx are of immediate and direct importance to UK air quality policy and evaluating on-going changes in emissions has direct policy relevance given the traffic fleet is changing rapidly. Whilst particulate traffic exhaust emissions are relatively well understood, the quantification of non-exhaust emissions that OSCA will deliver has direct benefit to national and regional policy making as the UK fleet electrifies and conventional exhaust emissions diminish. OSCA will provide policy makers with new information on the contributions to the urban mass burden from sources such as wood burning and cooking which can be used to base future decisions regarding PM control. OSCA will provide new data on urban ammonia and source attribution between agriculture and urban sources and so support policy makers in their prioritisation and strategies for reducing emissions.

Identifying the drivers of trends in pollutant concentrations and attributing changes to specific interventions and policies is extremely challenging, given the large number of confounders that exist. OSCA will develop approaches to tackle this problem, utilising a wide range of data currently available to assess the extent to which such causality can be attributed and will provide a framework for wider modelling work that will investigate this. Such tools will be widely disseminated for other stakeholders to use themselves.

OSCA measurements of the composition of air pollution, along with source attribution, will provide observational constraints to other projects within the Clean Air programme who are forecasting air quality, modelling policy interventions, assessing air quality sensor networks, measurement innovation, assessing exposure and identifying health impacts. The information and expertise from OSCA will therefore inform public health professionals investigating the health impacts of air quality in UK cities.

This work has the potential to generate significant impact with regional authorities in other areas of the UK, through the dissemination of findings, and the translation of tools. The project will seek out aspects of the research that have wider applicability to other cities and work to support decision-making more broadly in the UK.

Lastly, in many cases air quality improvements will not be delivered by policy alone but require public engagement, including technology uptake and behaviour change to deliver cleaner air. The willingness of the public to embrace change is very dependent on their knowledge of the problem, their trust in the solutions and engagement with the change process. By publicising our findings on local issues derived for example from local source apportionment, we have the potential to generate impact through region-specific public engagement, raising awareness of air pollution sources and the activities that drive emissions.


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Description A core part of the OSCA project is operation of three Air Quality Supersites, to characterise the UK's background urban atmosphere, and detect new / emerging trends in air pollutions. The Birmingham Air Quality Supersite (BAQS) was commissioned in 2018/2019, with first measurements starting in March 2019, and officially opened alongside Clean Air Day 2019. BAQS is now beginning the period of high-quality, long-term observations essential to detect subtle changes in air composition - for example, relating to woodsmoke / biomass burning, cooking, non-exhaust road transport emissions, trends in agriculturally derived and anthropogenic ammonia - to inform future clean air policy development and hence the protection of public and environmental health.

In addition to the core OSCA science, the BAQS facility has supported instrument development work by the Universities of Cambridge, ITH Zurich and Birmingham, measurement of halogenated flame retardants, and commercial sensor testing by a private sector company. The site has also identified a short-term air pollution episode affecting the west midlands in December 2019, and provided the first notification of this to Birmingham City Council.

This is a long-term measurement programme, whose value increases exponentially with the duration of observations.
Exploitation Route Use by local auhorities, policymakers to improve air pollution legislation for the protection of public and environmental health
Sectors Environment

Description The Birmingham Air Quality Supersite (BAQS), operated through the OSCA project, maintains state-of-the-science observations of urban air quality in Birmingham / the West Midlands. The data supports short-term research analyses (for example, around the impacts of spring 2020 Covid lockdown on air quality) and long-term evaluation of subtle trends in air quality, and emerging new emissions related to changes in activity, industry, agriculture and transport. Data from the site has fed into national research projects evaluating Covid impacts; regional policy guidance regarding compliance with air quality standards in 2020 given Covid impacts; supported commercial air quality sensor development work through a private sector company; provided first warnings of short-term air pollution episodes affecting the West Midlands, and provided informal guidance / training for local authority air quality officers regarding equipment options for future monitoring across the West Midlands.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Birmingham City Council: Air Quality and Impacts on NO2 Compliance in Birmingham, 2020
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Description Insights into air pollution levels in the West Midlands from Covid
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Description Engagement related to the OSCA project - Air Quality Supersites 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Various media interviews related to Air Pollution have been conducted at the Birmingham Air Quality Supersite, including BBC The One Show, ITV, Channel 5 News
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022