Air Quality, Nature and Society: A Wicked Problem? – By Claire Wansbury


Air pollution, with its impacts on natural systems and on human health, is a challenge that is multi-faceted and highly complex.  As technology changes and our understanding of pollutants increases, new issues can arise, either because they are genuinely new, or because they are only newly recognised.  Taking a practical example, think back over recent years when diesel cars went from being promoted as a better option than petrol due to their fuel efficiency and lower carbon dioxide emissions, to diesel cars being discouraged in London and other large urban areas, as a result of their higher NOx and particulate matter emissions, contributing to effects on human health.  This complexity of issues, interactions and receptors makes me think of air pollution as a wicked problem.

The term ‘wicked problem’ can be used lightly, to describe problems that are complicated and can seem insurmountable but that can have a final solution – however, once solved such problems are, by definition, no longer ‘wicked’.  Truly wicked problems have many interdependent factors so, taking poverty and world hunger as examples, interventions can make things better, or worse, but we will never reach a situation where we can be sure they have been solved for ever.

As humans, air pollution can affect us all, and as ecologists it affects many of the features we study and work to protect, but is one of the least familiar of the issues we need to consider.  I am delighted that CIEEM is holding a conference on the topic in 2020.  I hope that it is a starting point to increasing numbers of ecologists learning more about air pollution, firstly to be ready when impacts on nature need assessment and mitigation on a project, and secondly to enable ecologists to work with air quality specialists and landscape architects.

Most graduate ecologists will have had some teaching relevant to air pollution, but given the sheer spectrum of topics we need to study, it is understandably covered with a relatively light touch.

There is so much more for us to learn.  For many ecological consultants, their first interaction with the science is when an air quality specialist shows the results of monitoring or modelling and asks, “so is this a problem?”  The 2019 IAQM guidance is an excellent introduction to the work air quality professionals do on nature and CIEEM will shortly be issuing related advice, but that requires an understanding of basic terms like critical loads and critical levels.

So where to go for help?  For any professional ecologist, I would suggest the first place if one is available to you is to an air quality specialist – ask them your questions and they will probably have plenty of questions for you as well.  Where assessment is required of potential impacts on important ecological receptors, our two disciplines need to work together. Another valuable source of information is the series of research reports Natural England has created around the topic.  These can be found on the internet, along with a website it is essential to visit: APIS, a searchable database and information source regarding pollutants’ effects on sites, habitats and species. However, when dealing with particularly sensitive receptors, such as lichens, be prepared to go to primary academic research and specialist experts for input.

At this point, you may be breathing a sigh of relief that this complexity doesn’t happen to arise in your own work because you work on different aspects of ecology such as inputting to masterplan design with landscape architects and others, or nature reserve management.  That may be true, but it does not mean you should not think about air pollutants.  Designing and managing good greenspace in urban areas contributes to human society in many ways, and it is increasingly appearing that one of those ways is through battling poor air quality.

Some air pollutants have direct impacts on human health.  For example, work by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) has estimated that between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths may be linked to air pollution in the UK every year.

Some recent technological approaches have been described as ‘artificial trees’, scrubbing pollutants from the air.  While these may become part of the solution in some urban areas, they do not provide the ‘win-win’ situation we can see with well-designed urban greenspace.  Such places benefit wildlife, but they also benefit people in many ways, fighting the heat island effect and also through effects on physical and mental health (Natural England (2017). Good Practice in social prescribing for mental health: the role of nature-based interventions.  NECR228. 

If air pollution and nature seem too much of a wicked problem to even try to untangle, we must remember, and be encouraged by, the fact that regulation and commitment can make a real difference.  Concerns over the impact of human-created pollutants on the ozone layer, and the knock-on impacts on health, led to international action, and this had results.  The levels of ozone-depleting substances in the atmosphere are slowly declining, and it is estimated that the Antarctic ozone will recover to 1980 levels in around 2070.  Also, improved technology is resulting in reductions of NOx emissions from traffic in the UK.  Society has hard decisions to make about controlling air pollutants, but the health benefits, and therefore the social value, of acting are high, so, like the climate change emergency and biodiversity crisis, action can make a real difference.

Claire Wansbury FCIEEM CEcol CEnv CMLI is an Associate Director of Ecology at Atkins Ltd and a Fellow of CIEEM.  Within Atkins, Claire and her colleagues work on a wide variety of major infrastructure projects.  Claire has particular expertise in Biodiversity Net Gain, Natural Capital and Ecological Impact Assessment.



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