Our Air: Giving Young People the Tools to Advocate on Air Pollution

Dr Victoria Esteves, Lecturer in Creative Industries, Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Dr Ruaraidh Dobson, Research Fellow, Institute for Social Marketing, Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport

Dr Clare Bird, Lecturer in Molecular Cell Biology, Faculty of Natural Sciences

Dr Susan Fitzer, Lecturer, Institute of Aquaculture, Faculty of Natural Sciences

Around 25,000 accredited delegates will attend COP26. Whole the gathering bring together world leaders and critical environmental stakeholders, climate change affects all of us. We will all be impacted by a changing climate, and we can all contribute to the solutions. In their contribution to the University’s COP26 bite-size lecture series, Dr Victoria Esteves and colleagues explain how citizens can contribute to the climate debate through being ‘citizens scientists’, contributing to a better understanding of the experience of air pollution at a local level. Watch the lecture above or read the transcript below.

Climate change refers to changes happening to average climate patterns around the world and is a pressing issue that is impacting all of us. These changes have become more drastic since the 1950s, and have accelerated in recent years, which has led to growing discussion of these issues around the world. Human activity, including pollution, is the main reason for climate change, which is why people around the world are looking for solutions regarding things we can do to change this. 

Pollution affects all natural aspects of our planet, including our water, land, and air. According to the World Health Organisation, 91% of the world’s population breathes air with pollution levels above recommended guidelines. These findings might sound scary or perhaps even familiar, but what does this really mean for each of us? 

We all know that climate change is real, but does it feel real? Sometimes these big issues can become very abstract, especially when we hear statistics about the climate crisis every day. And while some of these statistics are valiant goals, such as the “Scottish Government’s target to reduce emissions from a 1990 baseline by 80% by 2050”, we can often be left wondering: how do I come into this? Such an enormous task can often seem entirely unrelated to our everyday lives. 

In this project we’re interested in knowing: What does climate change mean to you? How do you relate to the air around you, in your own city? And with all these conversations around climate change happening around the globe, what does this mean for Stirling? 

When we’re faced with these big questions about climate change, we like to think that there are experts out there taking care of it. The good news is there are scientists, experts, activists, and politicians working towards positive change. You may have heard of COP26, which is taking place soon in Glasgow, this is the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, a yearly summit organised by the UN to discuss these issues and attempt to find solutions. 

But as we see these exclusive gatherings every year, we also have to ask: what is our role in this? Who gets to make these decisions? Where does your voice come in? It’s easy to feel like your say gets lost among the big groups discussing these issues, but this is our planet and our city, and we hold valuable experience as citizens who live through climate issues, and changes in air pollution, within Stirling. 

We might not all feel as knowledgeable as scientists and experts, however as citizens we are all affected by air pollution, and we know and understand our own cities and spaces around us, so we all have our own experience on what that’s like. With this in mind, we would like to question the idea of who gets to discuss climate issues. We might not all be scientists, but science affects all of us, and we all have the power to affect science with our own understanding of the places where we live and breathe. 

We envision a project where young people contribute to this debate by being citizen scientists, opening the doors of scientific participation to the public, and asking everyone to contribute to a better understanding of air pollution in Stirling: how it’s experienced, where it’s experienced, and what that experience means to you. 

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My name is Dr Ruaraidh Dobson from the Institute for Social Marketing and Health. I’m just going to talk a little bit about what we mean when we talk about air pollution and how we’re going to try and equip young people to talk and to think about it in their own lives. 

When we think about air pollution, we often think about cars. And there are lots of good reasons for that. I mean, cars produce a lot of different types of air pollution, they’re very visible and worldwide they produce a great deal of air pollution-based health harm. Of course, one of the main reasons we think of them like this is because when you’re driving a petrol or diesel car, you’re producing carbon dioxide. And when you put CO2 into the air, of course, that creates the dramatic global heating effect which is having devastating consequences for people all around the world. 

But it’s also important to note that CO2 isn’t the only type of air pollution. 

Air pollution can mean lots of different things. There are lots of different kinds of air pollution and those different kinds of different effects on the planet and on the people who are breathing them. In this study, we’re interested, as well as in carbon dioxide, we’re interested in something called PM2.5. Those are particles, less than a fiftieth the width of a human hair. Those particles get deep into the lungs and cross into the blood where they can cause heart disease and stroke, amongst other diseases. 

One interesting feature of them is that they’re predominantly related to combustion, to burning things just like carbon dioxide. But the interaction between these different kinds of pollutants can be complicated. For instance, if you’re if you have a cleaner burning fuel, that means that the fuel is going to produce more carbon dioxide, which obviously is bad for global heating, but if you have a dirtier fuel that’s going to produce more of this PM2.5, that causes dramatic health effects, and so it’s really important we understand the full ramifications of different kinds of air pollution. We understand air pollution in the round not just one pollutant. 

Another important factor about air pollution is that it matters a lot where you are. Air pollution exists everywhere. Air pollution exists, indoors, outdoors, whatever environment you’re in, there’s some kind of air pollution there in some concentration. When we think about air pollution’s effects, particularly on human health, it’s important that we think about exposure to air pollution. It’s important that we think about the amount of time you’re spending in an area with high air pollution, your breathing rate, your own health, your health conditions. That means thinking about if you’re spending a lot of time indoors with somebody who, say, is smoking cigarettes, that’s going to be in most cases much worse than spending time outdoors, certainly in Scotland. 

We can measure air pollution, and measure it in lots of different ways, but increasingly we can use low-cost air quality monitors to find out a lot more, a lot richer data about air pollution that we have been able to pass. This is a great example of a low-cost monitor which monitors both CO2 and PM2.5. And it’s the monitor that we will be using in this project. These monitors have come down in cost a great deal and have increased in capability a lot over the last few years. And now it’s feasible for us to run these on batteries for a day or two and really get some in-depth information about air pollution in different areas, different places inside homes, schools, outside, on buses, on trains. 

And that’s really what we want to do in this project. What we’re trying to do is to give young people the tools to understand and to map air pollution around them. What we really want to do is to treat them, give them the opportunity to be citizen scientists where they’re developing their own hypotheses, their own ideas about air pollution in the world. 

What we’re going to do is give groups of young people from Stirling and the surrounding area a monitor each and ask them, give them some simple instructions on how to use it in some ideas about where they might choose to measure and then ask them to come up with their own ideas, come up with their own thoughts on where they want to measure. We’re really trying to centre their experience, because what we’re interested in is finding out, you know, how do they view air pollution? Are they what are they worried about? Where do they think our environments are polluted? And that might mean they show us things that we don’t know. That might mean that they learn things they weren’t previously aware of. 

I think there are lots of lots of interesting possibilities in this kind of citizen science approach and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the young people we work with come up with. 

Thank you very much. 

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