Implications for air quality from net zero policies and pathways in the UK


In 2019 the UK became the first major economy to pass laws committing to a legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To meet this significant commitment, there will need to be major changes across the UK economy. While this legislation and related policy are designed to limit the UK’s contribution to climate change, many of the proposed actions could have wider benefits for the environment. The Royal Society report Effects of net-zero policies and climate change on air quality1 concludes that net zero policies will accelerate progress towards cleaner air but that there are some areas where caution is necessary to avoid undesirable impacts on air quality and thereby human health.

Air pollution and human-induced climate change represent two of the greatest environmental risks to human health. Their causes and impacts are complex and interrelated. Calls have been made for a co-ordinated policy response, but identifying mutually beneficial policies is not as simple as it might seem. The impacts of policy are often dependant on, for example, the economy, technological change, how society or business responds and the wider context in which they occur. And the direction and magnitude of impact on emissions of greenhouse gases or air pollutants may change through the lifetime of the policy implementation.

The project:

In this PhD you will explore specific UK net zero policies from a systemic perspective. Your work will identify opportunities to realise significant co-benefits for air pollution and highlight potential trade-offs that need to be recognised and, if possible, mitigated or minimised. Your analysis will look further than the obvious impacts of desired policy endpoints to explore how different pathways and transitory activities affect air pollution throughout policy implementation. You will use systems approaches alongside evidence synthesis, data analysis and numerical methods to carry out the research, produce novel insights, and identify major knowledge gaps. We will aim to identify specific areas of risk, where possible quantify opportunities, and inform current thinking about how the UK can leverage greater environmental gains from actions to limit our climate impacts.

Your work will benefit from the long-term relationships that your project supervisors have with officials in the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Department for Transport. In particular, the activities around Net Zero and Air Pollution we are carrying out in partnership with Defra are highly relevant.

Student profile:

You should have an interest in air quality and global environmental challenges, with a strong background in natural science or a related area.


You will be based in the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories (WACL), in the Department of Chemistry at the University of York, but you will work in collaboration with officials in government and industry. WACL is the largest dedicated atmospheric chemistry facility in the UK. WACL supports an exceptional research environment, providing access to state-of-the-art facilities and a wide range of interdisciplinary expertise. Training will be provided by both the PANORAMA Doctoral Training Programme and the University of York to support you to become an effective researcher, improve your transferable skills and enable you to put your work into a wider scientific context.