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Clearing the Air with Tim Smedley

Environment > Clearing the Air with Tim Smedley

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A #DifferenceMaker Q&A

17 November 2021, 4:34 PM


Our latest and greatest #DifferenceMaker is the one and only Tim Smedley. Author, journalist, and sustainability champion  – Tim is using his love of language to help raise awareness of the real environmental issues we’re facing today, and helping us all learn how we can tackle them.

We caught up with him to chat about his debut book, Clearing The Air: the beginning and the end of air pollution, how he thinks engineering can save the world, and even got some sneak peaks into his next book too…

DM: Hey Tim. Thanks so much for your time – we know you’re a busy guy! Could you start by telling us a bit about who you are and what you do?

Tim: Hey, and sure! I’m an environmental journalist and book author, and have written for the Guardian and BBC amongst others. 

My first book came out in paperback last year, and looks at how air pollution came to blight the modern world and what we can do about it – both the technological solutions and the social changes. My book even received public recommendations from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dr Turner from Call the Midwife – so, you know, all bases covered!

I’m working on my second book, provisionally titled The Last Drop, looking at how climate change is causing a freshwater crisis. Like my first book, I’m not interested in just outlining the doom and gloom – I explore the solutions, which sees me don a hard hat and steel toe caps on numerous site visits (including more than one sewage treatment works…).

Sounds a little gross, but we love how hands-on you are! What inspired you to start writing about these issues?

In my early days as an environmental journalist I was often writing about problems that seemed really far away. What first hooked me on to air pollution was that it’s not only a global problem, but also uncomfortably close to home. At the time I started writing, London had some of the worst diesel pollution in the world – and I wanted to find out how that could possibly be the case, which led me down a rabbit hole of atmospheric science, respiratory medicine, mechanical and electrical engineering.

I guess I’m most interested in the intersection between climate change and human health – communicating exactly how and where climate change is affecting our everyday lives (whether that’s the air we breathe or the water we drink). I don’t have a science and engineering background myself, so I often act as the bridge between the academic/professional worlds and the general public, like me, who want to know more but sometimes feel blocked out by the technical jargon. My work helps to translate the vitally important work going on that often fails to get widely communicated.  

That’s so true – and we’re here for all that jargon and myth-busting!  So what do you think the biggest challenges facing our world are?

Climate change. That’s it, basically, and I could spit out lines from IPCC reports to convince anyone otherwise. But we need to break climate change down into its constituent parts to make it both understandable and manageable, otherwise it’s too easy to get stuck into a ‘we’re all doomed’ mindset. For example, what is the burning of fossil fuels and solid fuels doing to us right now, not in 2030 or 2050? It’s causing localised air pollution, mostly from heating and vehicle combustion engines, which kills some 7-8 million people every year, causes a third of all heart disease and strokes, and many debilitating conditions including chronic asthma in children.  

IPCC = Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Water offers a similar case in point. Climate change is already biting with a changing water cycle and weather patterns (think of the German floods this year, or Canada breaking it’s highest ever recorded temperature culminating in devastating forest and town fires). As temperatures increase, the ground gets hotter and drier, while the air holds more water vapour; many places therefore are seeing rain in shorter, more intense bursts, yo-yoing between drought and flood. This is a huge challenge the world over.  

These are all truly devastating things to think about, and all the more reason to take action, of course. What role do you think engineering and technology will play in solving these challenges?

Excitingly for anyone getting into, or already working in, engineering and technology right now – it holds most of the answers! What can we do about horrific levels of air pollution (which is often called ‘the invisible killer’ because it’s made of particles too small to see)? In a sense, it’s pretty simple: stop burning stuff. To do that we need to rapidly replace combustion with electrification, using and perfecting existing technologies, from electric vehicles to renewable energy. A rapid draw-down in emissions would save and improve lives now and bring us closer to achieving the IPCC target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Whether it’s high-speed rail, electric trucks, electric bikes, infrastructure and urban design, heat pumps, wind and solar power or delivery robots, this is the front line of clean air.  

When it comes to water, while we can’t change existing weather patterns (although there’s some that do advocate for that via geoengineering), we can work harder to store the water when it arrives to tide (!) us over in those droughts.

Great pun, Tim.

Thanks! But really, in the UK, The National Infrastructure Commission estimated that new water supplies equivalent to the water consumed by over nine million people will be needed by the mid 2030’s. This is seeing water companies scramble to build new reservoirs, artificially recharge aquifers, repurpose canals into something akin to a ‘water grid’, and even desalination. It’s fair to say that water engineering is a growth sector for many years to come. And while there’s lots of exciting grey engineering projects going on, there’s also an increasing recognition and movement towards ‘nature-based solutions’, too. By integrating nature-based solutions into the design and implementation of infrastructure, we can better address environmental and societal challenges. 

Well, this sounds like there may be some hope after all! So, what's next for you?

Finishing the water book! I’m right in the middle of it at the moment – and I’ve recently returned from research trips to Jordan and Ghana. Pretty soon I’m just going to have to bite the bullet, stock up on caffeine and start writing!

Sounds good! But before you go, do you have any advice for any budding #DifferenceMakers out there?

Be true to yourself and what you believe in. I actually think it’s good – and desirable – to try your hand at a few things and generalise before you specialise. But once you hit upon exactly what you want to do, and the difference it can make to the world, then focus on that and give it your all. (And by that I don’t mean work 24/7 and burn out – that’s no use to anyone! Give it all you can in your professional capacity, and recharge and re-energise outside of that. It’s all about balance – and if you can perfect that… then please tell me how!).

Thanks Tim. We look forward to the next book!

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For more of Tim's words of climate wisdom, follow him on Twitter!

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