UK and Chinese scientists join forces to combat city pollution

3 December 2015

New research into toxic fumes polluting a Chinese megacity could help protect the health of millions in the coming decades.

Air pollution reached "hazardous" levels in Beijing on Monday, as global leaders met in Paris to thrash out a deal to cut fossil fuel emissions worldwide.

Pollution in a Chinese street

Urban air pollution poses a serious threat to human health, putting those living in some of the world's largest cities at higher risk of cancer, heart and lung conditions and premature death.

But new research with £5·5 million UK backing will shed light on severe air pollution in Beijing, helping to solve a problem likely to touch the lives of millions, as cities continue to expand worldwide.

Five four-year research projects receiving funding as part of the Atmospheric Pollution & Human Health in a Chinese Megacity (APHH China) programme will start in January 2016.

Funded by NERC, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), UK and Chinese scientists aim to identify the concentrations and sources of urban air pollution in Beijing, how people are exposed, how it affects their health, and what can be done about it.

Across the globe, populations are rising and more people are living in cities. This increase will be most dramatic in Asia and Africa, which are now the least urbanised but on track for huge urban development.

This will lead to more 'megacities' - metropolitan areas with a total population in excess of ten million people - posing a range of challenges including social and cultural change, crime and terrorism, homelessness, traffic congestion, urban sprawl, and serious environmental issues.

In China, urban air pollution is a serious problem. The occurrence of 'haze' - a mist of airborne pollutants - has become more severe and frequent over the past sixty years in urban areas in China. Five hundred million people in 86 cities are thought to be affected by it. As a consequence, there has been an increase of asthma and other respiratory problems in children.

NSFC has invested 40 million yuan (£4 million) towards the APHH China programme. Of the grants from NERC and MRC, £3 million is from the Newton Fund - part of the UK government's official development assistance aiming to develop science and innovation partnerships that promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries. The APHH China programme is one of several collaborations between NERC and NSFC using Newton Fund money. This programme and joint funding process has been facilitated by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) China office.

NERC's chief executive, Professor Duncan Wingham, said:

Air pollution poses a serious threat to human health in megacities across the globe and will be an increasing challenge as the process of mass urbanisation continues to unfold, particularly in the developing world. NERC is investing in high-quality scientific research in Beijing, where air pollution is already affecting the population's health. It's a pressing issue and the results of this research will help inform action on what can be done to minimise the risks of air pollution to populations in the future.

Professor Lu Rongkai, deputy director general of the Bureau of International Cooperation, NSFC, said:

Atmospheric Pollution & Human Health is one of the first China-UK major collaborative research plans co-organised and co-funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Research Councils UK. It is an innovative mode of cooperation for China and UK, and reflects the increasing volume and scale of China-UK scientific cooperation.

It is our hope that, through this funding scheme, with the combination of scientific advantages of China and UK, the researchers from the two countries can conduct in-depth cross-disciplinary collaborative research in relevant areas such as the source process of atmospheric pollution, its influence on human health and the preventive solutions, and ultimately make contributions to improving air quality and human health.

The five four-year projects awarded funding are:

  • Sources & emissions of air pollutants in Beijing (AIRPOLL-Beijing)
    UK principal investigator Professor Roy Harrison, University of Birmingham. Chinese principal investigator Professor Kebin He, Tsinghua University.

  • An integrated study of air pollution processes in Beijing (AIRPRO)
    UK principal investigator Professor Alistair Lewis, University of York, and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science. Chinese principal investigator Professor Pingqing Fu, Institute of Atmospheric Physics (CAS).

  • Air pollution impacts on cardiopulmonary disease in Beijing: An integrated study of exposure science, toxicogenomics & environmental epidemiology (APIC-ESTEE)
    UK principal investigator Dr Miranda Loh, Institute of Occupational Medicine. Chinese principal investigator Dr Zhiwei Sun, Capital Medical University.

  • Effects of air pollution on cardiopulmonary disease in urban & peri-urban residents in Beijing (AIRLESS)
    UK principal investigator Professor Frank Kelly, King's College London. Chinese principal investigator Professor Tong Zhu, Peking University.

  • Integrated assessment of the emission-health-socioeconomics nexus & air pollution mitigation solutions & interventions in Beijing (INHANCE)
    UK principal investigator Professor Dabo Guan, University of East Anglia. Chinese principal investigator Dr Shu Tao, Peking University.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
NERC media office
01793 411939
07710 147485


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).

2. The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) is widely respected as the most transparent research funder in China, it implements a rigorous and objective peer review system to support basic and frontier research, foster talented researchers and develop international cooperation. NSFC is RCUK's primary funding partner. RCUK's relationship with NSFC has developed significantly since the China office was set up. RCUK and NSFC signed a joint agreement in December 2013 to establish biennial strategic meetings to optimise resources and explore more effective mechanisms for bilateral cooperation. This is the first of its kind for both the research councils and the NSFC, and has been a vital step in solidifying a partnership that has funded over £108 million in joint programmes.

3. RCUK China was the first overseas team set up outside of Europe by the UK research councils. Since 2007, the team has built excellent relationships with all the major national funding agencies in China, pioneering the facilitation of UK-China research partnerships across areas of natural, physical and medical sciences, engineering, social science, arts and the humanities. To date, RCUK China has facilitated over £160 million in co-funded programmes supporting 78 UK-China research projects that have involved more than 60 universities and 50 industry partners in both countries. RCUK China currently has six members of staff and is co-located in the British Embassy in Beijing.

4. The Newton Fund is a £375 million fund (£75 million a year for five years) which, through science and innovation partnerships, aims to promote the economic development and welfare of poor people in developing countries. The Fund is overseen by the Department for Businesses Innovation & Skills (BIS) and delivered through 15 delivery partners in collaboration with 15 partnering countries.

5. The Medical Research Council is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-one MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms