The UK, like the vast majority of countries around the world, has an air pollution problem. Climate studies have estimated 90 per cent of the population is breathing dirty and harmful air. The country’s dirty air contributes to 16,000 UK deaths per year.
In response to the ongoing crisis, the government has been forced to publish its plan to tackle air pollution within the country. The air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide outlines a number of plans for reducing pollution alongside roads.
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Within the plans, The Times reports, is the suggestion that tunnels can be built around UK motorways to actively reduce the amount of air pollution that’s being emitted from them.
This would involve introducing a pollution absorbing material over the top of roads. Similar efforts and technologies have been used in small-scale projects in China to reduce the amount of smog in Beijing.
The suggestion to adopt these methods for UK roads comes from the Highways Agency, which states that it is investing £100 million to test new ideas for reducing pollution. “We have identified that a cantilever barrier or canopy, which is a tunnel-like structure designed to prevent vehicle emissions, might be a possible solution,” a spokesperson for the agency says.
“It’s far better to get people to drive less,” Tony Ryan, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Sheffield, tells WIRED. He says a widescale plan to put tents or tunnels over motorways would be “bonkers”.
“The real issue about air quality and air pollution are in the regions that have high population densities,” Ryan adds. “You actually want to have an effect in cities”. According to the Department for Transport there are 2.3 thousand miles of motorway across the UK. Even to cover a large part of these with pollution reducing materials would take a significant investment from politicians and government.
Despite this, there are also ongoing trials within the UK. The Highways Agency continues to say it is working with Dutch authorities to monitor a trial it is completing using a similar air sucking barrier. Wooden panels, between four and six metres high, have been fitted near the M62 in Manchester and a three-metre high fence capable of absorbing nitrogen dioxide is also happening.
However, there are a number of caveats from the Highways Agency: it says that the best way to deal with air quality around roads is to introduce more low-emission vehicles. At the end of July the UK government vowed to ban new diesel and petrol cars from roads by 2040 – the details were included in its clean air plan.