Imperial College London’s Transition to Zero Pollution: the fight for a cleaner future

Imperial College London’s Transition to Zero Pollution (TZP) initiative is designed to find meaningful solutions to the world’s pressing pollution problem. Here, the world-leading university explains how this innovative initiative works and the impact philanthropic support will have in accelerating its efforts

| 9 min read

Everywhere we look, we can find evidence of anthropogenic pollution – that caused by human activity. From the heights of the Himalayan peaks to the depths of the Pacific Ocean, hazardous waste such as toxic metals and plastic fibres have been detected, highlighting the devastating scale of the planet’s pollution problem.

Pollution causes increasing rates of premature deaths, biodiversity loss and species extinction each year, and CO2 levels are rising above the target needed to stave off the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to the public’s health and is costing the UK economy £20 billion a year.

Attempts to address and mitigate various aspects of anthropogenic pollution have had some noticeable success, but there is much we are still discovering about its impacts. Crucially, efforts to solve the known problems have been hindered by a tendency to view different forms of pollution in isolation, rather than as interconnected.

The World Health Organisation estimates that outdoor air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide each year.

A radical shift to overcome siloed thinking

Environmental sign

To meaningfully address the threats posed by pollution, we need a radical shift in industrial systems, technologies, and business models, supported by innovative policies and governance structures. This is why Imperial College London launched Transition to Zero Pollution (TZP) – an initiative that convenes expertise from across disciplines and sectors to find meaningful solutions to the complex, multifaceted problem of pollution.

Leading the TZP initiative is Professor Mary Ryan, Vice-Provost for Research and Enterprise at Imperial College London. “To realise a zero-pollution future, we will require integrated research across many disciplines,” says Mary. “Scientists, engineers, clinicians and economists must work together to create innovative technologies and policies that address not just a single problem but the entire system and life cycle.”

TZP is a flagship initiative of Imperial’s academic strategy, bringing researchers together to overcome the siloed thinking that has led to unintended consequences for the environment and society.

“Through cross-departmental appointments and education programmes, networking and public engagement programmes, and research teams assembled around challenges, we provide a platform for engaging with key stakeholders such as businesses, policy makers and citizens groups, to translate Imperial’s research into solutions that benefit both people and planet,” adds Mary.

“We have also partnered with Hitachi Ltd and Hitachi Europe Ltd to create the Hitachi and Imperial Centre for Decarbonisation and Natural Climate Solutions, to collaborate in fundamental and applied research that will drive the transition to net zero pollution.”

A time of opportunity and a time to act

Led by some of the world’s foremost experts in pollution, environmental science, innovation, and engineering, TZP focuses on critical cross-cutting research challenges that all require a systems-thinking approach to improving our environment, including:

  1. Zero pollution resources
    Our researchers are addressing the overuse of natural resources and the consequences of our linear society, in which raw materials are extracted and used and the waste disposed of. They are imagining what a zero-waste society could look like and finding ways to get there, working with stakeholders in industry and government to identify key areas of focus such as: how to move to a circular economy; how to support businesses to adopt new models; and how to design infrastructure with a life-cycle approach.
  2. Zero pollution cities
    More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and this is set to rise to 70% by 2050. Urbanisation has many socio-economic benefits, but this migratory trend into cities is contributing greatly to the concentration, transformation and release of pollutants. Imperial experts are leading national energy initiatives and exploring areas such as water-neutral urban design, blue-green cities, zero-pollution buildings and how to make the journey to an electric transport system while keeping negative side effects at bay. They are investigating infrastructure materials for CO2 sequestration, developing virtual models to empower citizens in their decision making and using advanced measuring and modelling tools to find new ways to improve air quality.
  3. Zero pollution society
    Our researchers are developing tools and models to understand the drivers for behaviour change and the economic and policy models needed for a zero-pollution society. Our work focuses on tackling pollution in ways that alleviate, rather than reinforce, poverty in society, and on providing equitable access to environmentally sustainable tools, technologies and jobs.

To help energy systems transition to net zero pollution by 2050, we’ve joined up with oil and gas company Shell and with synchrotron science facility Diamond Light Source to launch InFUSE - a programme examining how materials can be improved to support the green economy.

While the challenge is steep, we live in a time of opportunity. Momentum and political will are building around efforts to tackle pollution, and technological advances are opening up new ways to do this:

  • Improvements in basic analytical techniques are helping to identify individual chemicals in mixtures of thousands, something that has always been difficult to achieve.
  • Computer modelling techniques and AI are helping to flag potentially harmful chemicals, streamline risk assessments and predict how various mixtures of chemicals might react in the environment.
  • Low-cost, lightweight sensors are helping create scalable networks for monitoring air quality.
  • Alternative energy technologies hold the potential to reduce unsustainable and exploitative cobalt mining and turn readily available waste materials into improved batteries.

I am enthused by the imagination and drive of Transition to Zero Pollution and have every confidence that Imperial will offer a propitious environment for this research to flourish, in keeping with more than a century’s worth of world-class achievements.

Mary Robinson, Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Former President of Ireland

The role of philanthropy in Transition to Zero Pollution

Net zero in wooden blocks

Philanthropy will be crucial to TZP’s success. Traditional public research funding often comes with disciplinary frameworks that can force researchers into silos focusing on near-term problems. And while commercial investors and industrial partners are essential to bringing solutions to scale, they rarely support the people who carry out the research behind them. Philanthropy, on the other hand, provides our researchers with the freedom and resources to collaborate, pursue new and more challenging ideas across fields, and set their sights on long-term goals.

“We are looking for philanthropic partners to help us grow our community, support vital research and empower the leaders of the future in this space,” says Mary. “There are countless ways philanthropic funding can be used to support our mission, whether that be creating prestigious academic chairs that will enable us to secure exceptional leadership for our priority areas, creating interdisciplinary PhD scholarships that will help us build our research capacity, or assembling teams who can run demonstration projects – smaller-scale pilots that showcase how new discoveries and innovations will impact the real world.

“The race is on to achieve a zero-pollution future, and with philanthropic gifts we can accelerate our efforts to provide a cleaner and more prosperous future for all.”

If you are interested in partnering with Imperial College London and supporting Transition to Zero Pollution, please contact:

Jamal Iqbal, Deputy Director of Development, Faculty of Engineering


About Imperial College London

Imperial College London is a global top ten university with a world-class reputation in science, engineering, business and medicine. As well as undertaking the highest-quality fundamental research in core academic disciplines, Imperial’s staff and students work at the interface of these fields to help deliver practical and novel solutions to the toughest problems facing humanity.Imperial is the world’s leading centre for the study of air pollution, and is responsible for informing policy across the UK and beyond in this area. Its researchers have been working with the Mayor of London and Bloomberg Philanthropies to empower communities across London to measure air quality and track their exposure to harmful pollution. They also run the London Air Quality Network – a network of excellence to improve air quality for everyone.

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

Imperial College London’s Transition to Zero Pollution: the fight for a cleaner future

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