Mapping air quality at regional level but especially at local level – from cities to districts to individual streets – and all in real time. This is the core of the ATMOSYS air quality management system. Now that the tools of the comprehensive system have been tested and validated in Flanders, they are now making their way abroad.

The quality of air in work, home and living environment is high on the agenda in an increasing number of industrialised countries. This is especially the case in Flanders; an example of which is the CurieuzeNeuzen project, in which the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) at street level were mapped last year (2018). But the subject is also affecting more and more people in other densely populated and highly industrialised European regions – so-called air pollution hotspots. However, before effective action can be taken, air quality must first be sufficiently mapped.

Specific tools

This is carried out using a wide range of techniques such as remote sensing, ground-based measuring stations and complex computer models – in which all measurement data are processed. VITO has been working on this type of air quality model since the beginning of this century. In 2010, this work led to the launch of ATMOSYS, a three-year project funded by the European LIFE programme for environment-related research. "We had already completed the majority of the modelling research by that point", explains Lisa Blyth of VITO. "In the project, we used our modelling expertise as a basis for developing specific tools." The tools were designed based on four pillars of modern air quality management: air quality monitoring (in real time), assessment or mapping (detailed mapping and visualisation of air pollution down to street level), forecasting (to send warnings) and, of course, improvement (through the implementation of concrete actions). "These tools were first developed, tested and then validated for Flanders within the project", explains Blyth. "Nevertheless, we were already taking into account possible application in other hotspots in Europe at that time."

And the latter has proven to be effective. Almost ten years after the project was launched, ATMOSYS has developed into a 'strong brand' within the world of air quality management – especially in Europe. Blyth explains: "We have therefore chosen to continue to fully operate under the ATMOSYS flag. As a result, VITO, which has consciously followed a more commercial path over the past two decades, now plays the role of a company that has put a strong brand on the market."

Lesser Poland

There is a high level of interest in ATMOSYS (and its tools) in Europe today. Especially in some traditional industrial areas in Eastern Europe, such as Lesser Poland (the region around Krakow), Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia. "It also helps that the European Commission, which was one of the founders of ATMOSYS due to its LIFE programme funding, has endorsed and promoted our tools", adds Blyth. "We have therefore managed to penetrate the highly industrialised region of Lesser Poland, where the government is making great efforts to persuade citizens to replace their old-fashioned, polluting (steam) boilers, again with the support of the LIFE programme. With our expertise and ATMOSYS tools, we help to monitor air quality in real time. And in the urban area in and around Krakow, we are simulating the impact of the construction of new bypasses and a low-emission zone on air quality. We already previously used this tool to evaluate the impact of a number of traffic measures in Flanders, such as the Oosterweel scenarios."

One of the most important factors in the success story of ATMOSYS is capacity building, according to Blyth: improving and expanding our own expertise and technology in order to achieve a significant impact on a larger or different scale. "In a country like Poland, there is no shortage of small companies manufacturing measuring equipment and sensors. But all sensors are different, and you also need to know exactly what you're measuring. What is more, measurements often contain errors and uncertainties. We have already seen that same complex problem in Flanders. This enables us to propose a well founded approach, combined with our tools, of course."

Good business relations

The ball has really started rolling for the ATMOSYS team at VITO since the project was launched in Poland in 2016. So much so, that Hungary has also asked for advice and expertise in the field of air quality modelling and monitoring. Countries such as Croatia and Slovakia are now busy setting up their own air quality management services. In a public tender issued by both countries, VITO always emerged as the winner.

Blyth believes that the recipe for the success of ATMOSYS lies in a number of vital ingredients. "First of all, VITO holds a solid reputation in Europe, thanks to our scientific expertise, but also thanks to our extensive business network. However, it is important to remember that these strong relationships are not formed overnight. We have invested a great deal of time and effort in the case of Croatia and Slovakia."

And the ball keeps on rolling. VITO's expertise in air quality management has now also become known in China and India, two emerging economic countries that have made improving air quality a top priority. Until recently, VITO's contribution to China was limited to providing forecasting models so that authorities can warn their citizens in time about smog peaks – via LIBOVITO, VITO's department in China. "But we've also recently become involved in assessment and mapping campaigns, for example to identify sources of pollution and then tackle them", explains Blyth.

Last but not least, VITO has two pilot projects in India: one on predicting air pollution in Delhi. "We are carrying this out for the national environmental agency, the Central Pollution Control Board. We hope that this will be a stepping stone for similar work in other cities. Another project focuses on mapping the air quality in Bengaluru. The latter is being carried out in collaboration with the European Earth Observation Programme, Copernicus", explains Blyth.

In the framework of ‘Over De Ring’ 6 design teams have drawn up strategic quality of life projects for the Antwerp ring road zone.

Map 1 shows the expected air quality situation in 2030 with regards to the annual average of nitrogen dioxide concentrations when all these projects will be executed. This includes among other things partial covering an wildlife crossings, shoulders and screens next to the development of station environments and actions to realize the modal shift. This map clearly shows an improvement of the air quality compared to the situation in 2016 (Map 2).

Map 2

Source: ‘Over De Ring” 2018, VITO as assigned by MOW, ORG Urbanism and the team of the intendant. Model: ATMO-Street by ATMOSYS