Project Highlights:

  • Learn about the tools used to develop air quality policy in the UK.
  • Test these tools against observations from instruments in space.
  • Work with the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to gain hands-on experience in Environmental Policy.



Air pollution is the largest global threat to health (Lancet, 2017). In the UK, about 40,000 people die prematurely each year due to exposure to air pollution (RCP, 2016) and UK health care costs due to air pollution may be as high as £160 million per year (PHE, 2018). It is extremely challenging to extensively monitor air quality and develop effective policies. Routine and widespread monitoring is costly, so there are large data gaps and air quality policy tools are undervalidated. These tools include air quality models that predict air pollutant concentrations (https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/research/air-quality-modelling) and emission inventories to estimate the amount of pollution released from individual sources (http://naei.beis.gov.uk/).

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has ambitious plans to develop policy that protects the environment and safeguards the health of people in the UK (DEFRA, 2018).       Key to the success of these plans is air pollutant measurements from instruments in space (Earth observations), as these provide daily coverage across the UK (Catapult Blog, 2018). An example is shown in the figure below for the toxic air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from the TROPospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) on the Eurpopean Space Agency Sentinel-5P satellite (http://www.tropomi.eu/). High levels of NO2 are due to cars and congestion in cities, power generation, and ship traffic.

In this work you will learn the skills needed to efficiently process and analyse big data from space-based instruments to use this information to understand dynamic changes in air pollution, estimate pollutant emissions across the UK, and contribute to DEFRA’s Cleain Air Strategy.

You will be trained by Harvard and Oxford educated supervisors with expertise in atmospheric chemistry modelling, atmospheric chemistry, and Earth observations at the country’s Earth observations research hub. You will also gain hands-on experience in UK air quality policy with placements at DEFRA, participate in DEFRA and Air Quality Experts Group meetings, and learn about air quality policy in other countries by attending a NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (https://haqast.org/) meeting in the US.

Figure 1: Air pollution due to coal, cars, and ships in the UK is visible from space.


Process, analyse, interpret, and visualise big data from high-resolution space-based instruments. Evaluate these space-based measurements against surface observations from the DEFRA monitoring network.

Convert air pollutant concentrations into precursor pollutant emissions with GEOS-Chem (http://acmg.seas.harvard.edu/geos/), the most widely used atmospheric chemistry model in the world.

Evaluate the quality of DEFRA tools by comparing air quality model output to Earth observation measurements of air pollutants and by comparing emissions from the UK National Atmospheric Emission Inventory to emissions derived with GEOS-Chem and Earth observations.

Spend two 2-month placements at DEFRA to learn about the inner workings of this government agency, learn the techniques in compiling inventories and monitoring and modelling air quality, gain detailed insight into air quality policy development in the UK, integrate your results in UK air quality policy, and communicate your results to DEFRA, other relevant government departments, and the UK Air Quality Experts Group.

Training and Skills

No prior computer modelling or coding experience is needed. Training in this and big data analytics will be provided for you to gain proficiency in processing, analysing and visualising large datasets and to compile and run the GEOS-Chem model. At the end of your PhD you will be trained in highly sought after skills in computer coding, data management and analysis, science communication (written and spoken), environmental policy, and research ethics and best practices.



Year 1: Process satellite measurements of air pollutants and validate with surface measurements. Training by the supervisors to use Unix, IDL, Python and R for processing and analysing large datasets. Attend DEFRA inventory steering group and Centre of Excellence meetings with supervisor. Present first results at the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry Conference in Manchester UK. Report year 1 progress to DEFRA.

Year 2: Learn to use the International GEOS-Chem atmospheric chemistry model to derive emissions of pollutants from the same satellite measurements used in Year 1. Present at the GEOS-Chem User’s Meeting at Harvard in Cambridge MA. Attend the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST) meeting to learn about use of Earth observations in air quality policy in the US. Attend DEFRA inventory steering group and Centre of Excellence meetings with supervisor. Spend 2 months at DEFRA. Report year 2 progress to DEFRA.

Year 3: Critically assess DEFRA air quality modelling tools and the National Atmospheric Emission Inventory with satellite measurements from Year 1 and emission estimates from Year 2. Spend 2 months at DEFRA.

Placement activities at DEFRA include: share outcomes with DEFRA, the Air Quality Experts Group, and the DEFRA Centre of Excellence, contribute to DEFRA Emissions Evidence Team reports, present at the DEFRA science conference, and work with DEFRA to integrate results from this project in UK air quality policy.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

DEFRA is a named CASE partner on this project. They have committed to hosting the student at the department for 2 months each in Years 2 and 3, contributing to providing the CENTA2 cohort with training in Environmental Policy, and providing in-cash contribution of £2,000 per year for 3 years to support the placements and for routine meetings with DEFRA to report findings from this project. The proposed project is well aligned with DEFRA priorities to build an air quality evidence base, address uncertainties in the National Atmospheric Emission Inventory, and strengthen partnerships with academics.

Further Details

Application page: http://www.centa.org.uk/apply/.

For queries, please contact Dr Eloise Marais at eloise.marais@le.ac.uk.