Cork installs robot CityTrees to tackle air pollution amid criticism

13 Aug 2021

From left: Sergej Dawljatbekow, Kevin Ryan, Colm Kelleher, David Joyce, Michael Springindschmitten. Image: Michael O'Sullivan

The five robot CityTrees installed in Cork’s city centre use IoT technology and moss cultures to reduce air pollution in surrounding areas.

Cork’s city council has installed five robot trees to tackle air pollution in the city as a part of its air quality strategy.

The five CityTrees in Cork’s city centre are four metres in height that use internet of things (IoT) technology and a variety of moss cultures to filter fine dust and harmful pollutants from the air. The council said that each CityTree can filter the air usage equivalent of up to 7,000 people per hour.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency report, particulate matter from the burning of solid fuel is estimated to cause 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland every year.

The moss cultures present in the units absorb air pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, emitting clean air in return. The council said the technology is sustainable and regenerative as the moss also ‘traps’ and ‘eats’ fine dust particles, citing studies by the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research that found that moss can clean about 80pc of fine dust from the air.

The structures were designed by German company Green City Solutions and have also been installed in other major European cities including Berlin, London and Glasgow.

Colm Kelleher, Lord Mayor of Cork, said that the CityTrees project has the potential to get the people of Cork to start talking about the wider impact of air pollution.

He added that the project was part of an ongoing effort to ensure sustainability is at the heart of the council’s operations. This includes a recent €3.5bn government investment to make transport in the metropolitan area more sustainable, the pedestrianisation of the marina and city centre streets and investments in cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

David Joyce, the council’s director of operations, said: “The CityTrees provide a site-specific solution to the challenge of air pollution and are one of a suite of actions in Cork’s air quality strategy. Air pollution is a public health concern and Cork City Council is the first local authority in the country to progress such a strategy.

“They also align with the city’s designation as a World Health Organization Healthy City and its smart city strategy, which sets out a series of actions to ensure the city is at the forefront technological innovation”.

‘A costly and ineffectual gimmick’

Other city councils in Ireland have been more cautious in their approach to employing the technology, with some accusing the project of being a waste of money.

Brendan Cooney, senior executive scientist at Wexford County Council, told that local authorities were better off reducing the problem of air quality at source.

“That means designating country-wide smokeless zones, stopping the burning of solid fuels and replacing fireplaces with stoves in homes. We’re trying to push for nationwide legislation to be adopted and that’s what we would prefer to see,” he said.

Dean Venables, a researcher at the UCC’s Centre for Research into Atmospheric Chemistry, told the Irish Examiner that the devices are “a costly and ineffectual gimmick”.

“The most important strategy has to be to reduce emissions. You need to stop emissions of carbon as well rather than capture them and try to claw back,” he told the paper.

Green City Solutions responded to some of the criticism on Twitter by saying that normal city trees and its CityTree units complement each other as solutions to different problems.

“As a measure, a tree tends to have a long-term effect, while the CityTree has a short- to medium-term effect. So together they form a perfect team!”

The country has seen a number of initiatives in the last year to monitor and address air pollution.

In October 2020, the EU gave the green light to €1m funding for a carbon capture project, which aims to use a Kinsale gas field as an offshore carbon storage site where emissions can be pumped into porous rock and stored many kilometres beneath the planet’s surface.

Earlier this year, Dublin City Council teamed up with Google to measure the air quality around Dublin using the tech giant’s Street View car, while Munster Technological University will is leading a project to build photonic sensors for pollution monitoring.

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic