Sustainability Research Impact

We are working to understand the impact of climate change, and how this affects the planet and its people; and are exploring the importance of clean air, and  decarbonisation of energy and transport.

Improving plant genetic resource availability to sustain global food security

Food Security is one of the fundamental global challenges confronting humankind today. Professor Nigel Maxted’s group is helping to secure future food supplies, mitigate the impact of climate change and maintain consumer choice, which benefits governments, commercial breeders, farmers and the public globally. They are working with; UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to establish a global network for agrobiodiversity in situ conservation; European Commission to integrated conservation strategy for conservation and use of crop, forest and animal genetic resources; and UK government to secure our agrobiodiversity through the Agriculture Bill.

How can agrobiodiversity help to safeguard food security in the face of climate change?


Professor Nigel Maxted

Professor Nigel Maxted

Chair in Plant Genetic Conservation

“We have never faced a challenge on this scale. We have highly adapted and uniform crops tailored to produce maximum yield, which have lost the traditional genetic variation that has enabled crops to survive climatic disaster and disease in the past. "There are many historic instances of crop failure, notably the Irish Potato Famine in the 1850s. We now know the solution is diversity of crops and crop varieties, the diversity we need can be found by either going back to the wild species related to modern crop or the crop landraces maintained by traditional farmers over many centuries – both of which possess the genetic diversity that is important for plant breeding.”


Science-based policy for cleaner air

International air quality guidelines, practice, and legislation have been influenced by a body of research from the University of Birmingham.  We influenced the original World Health Organisation air quality guidelines (2006) which have acted as a key target in air quality improvements and national policies across the world.  

Air pollution caused by industry
Man wearing face mask in a polluted area of Beijing

In the UK, our research has underpinned the development of national air quality policy in areas including wood smoke, non-exhaust traffic emissions and ammonia.  Practitioner guidance is also a key part of our work. This is leading to substantial changes in practice in the railway sector, including the reduction of diesel engine pollution in stations, notably Birmingham New Street. 

Roy Harrison

Roy Harrison

Professor of Environmental Health

“High levels of air pollution pose a serious health risk to inhabitants of many Chinese cities. We confirmed that Beijing’s air quality has improved significantly in recent years, but air pollution levels are still well above the WHO guidelines, leading to poor health and wellbeing for over 20 million people. Our measurement work in Beijing has given us a much greater understanding of air pollutants in Beijing – where the pollution is coming from and how much there is. This, in turn, allows us to make recommendations to policy makers and help them make the decisions that will reduce air pollution levels in Beijing and other cities across China.”


Protecting fish from high river temperatures under climate change

We have improved adaptation strategies and management practices to protect cold-water adapted freshwater fish (including wild salmon - worth £80M to the UK economy) from the harmful effects of high river water temperature projected under climate change. Through a highly successful collaboration with Marine Scotland and local fisheries organisations, we implemented the first-ever national-scale, quality-controlled river temperature monitoring network and developed new modelling techniques that underpin accessible online tools for decision-makers. These tools have guided riparian tree planting (to shade rivers) by fisheries and other natural resource managers. 

fish river small

We have advanced adaptation strategies and management practices to protect cold-water adapted freshwater fish (including wild salmon - worth £80M to the UK economy each year) from the effects of high river water temperature expected under climate change. By applying the first-ever national-scale, river temperature monitoring network and translating new modelling techniques into simple online tools for decision-makers we have:

  • instigated widespread 'riparian' tree planting (to shade rivers) by fisheries and other natural resource managers
  • provided evidence for Scottish Parliament debate and policy conservation efforts through the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO)
  • influenced replication of the same approach by Inland Fisheries Ireland
  • enhanced practitioner and public understanding of rivers’ climate sensitivity

Transforming decision-making in winter road maintenance using low-cost environmental sensor networks

Our research has helped to improve decision making in the Winter Road Maintenance sector by deploying dense networks of low-cost sensors that are being used by highway departments across the UK and northern Europe. The sensors are transforming practice in terms of risk management and improving winter maintenance public service delivery to the benefit of organisations and the general public. The implementation of these sensors has provided both commercial and policy impact to the sector. 

Professor Lee Chapman on responsible innovation in the Internet of Things
icy road2


The low-cost sensor network approach is now well accepted by the winter road maintenance industry as having a large influence on professional practice.  The research has won two scholarly awards (RMetS Innovation Award, 2014; The Harry Otten Prize for Innovation in Meteorology, 2017 - Presented by the European Meteorological Society. The technology was exclusively licensed in 2019 to Campbell Scientific Ltd, a US based sensor and data acquisition company, who have since gone on to market wintersense worldwide. The IoT approach, along with route based forecasting, now also features in UK best practice guidelines for the winter road maintenance industry.

Optimisation of commercial flight profiles to save fuel, harmful emissions and over $100 million

Developed by leading experts at the University of Birmingham, numerical optimisation methods, The and Mixed Integer Distributed Ant Colony Optimization (MIDACO) have led to substantial reductions in the use of natural resources by the aviation industry, saving at least 174,000 tonnes of fuel and preventing at least 0.55 million tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.  

MIDACO was created in collaboration with the European Space Agency, European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) subsidiary, and EADS Astrium. A spin-out company, MIDACO-Solver, provides software which embodies the Oracle Penalty Method to numerous multinational companies creating environmental impact and commercial success. 

Creating commercial and health benefits via microstructural food design

The University of Birmingham is home to the largest Chemical Engineering-based food research group in the UK. The team are developing new formulation engineering methods, techniques and novel approaches to food processing to create healthier, higher performance food products. This ground-breaking approach to food formulation is enabling industry to develop processes which meet consumer demands for healthier alternatives to conventional food products.  

Food for Thought: Formulation Engineering