People and air: A systems thinking approach to observed and potential changes in human behaviour, emissions and urban atmospheric composition

Thesis event information

Date and time of the thesis defence

Place of the thesis defence

Martti Ahtisaari -hall, University of Oulu

Topic of the dissertation

People and air: A systems thinking approach to observed and potential changes in human behaviour, emissions and urban atmospheric composition

Doctoral candidate

MSc, MA Mira Hulkkonen

Faculty and unit

University of Oulu Graduate School, Faculty of Science, Nano and Molecular Systems Research Unit

Subject of study



Associate Professor Jo Barnes, University of the West of England


Docent Jussi Malila, University of Oulu

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Multidisciplinary research sheds light on the possibilities to change human behaviour in order to reduce emissions and urban air pollution

Doctoral research by Mira Hulkkonen improves the ability to evaluate and predict changes in climate emissions and urban air pollution attributable to shifts in human behaviour. The multidisciplinary research regarded interactions between people, emissions, meteorology, and air pollution with modelling, simulations and data analysis using Machine Learning.

Ways to change human behaviour with respect to urban mobility were investigated, with focus on the effectiveness of incentives and sanctions deployed around the world. The air pollution impacts of an observed shift in emissions after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic were investigated as a case study, which involved applying a Self-Organizing Map method. A combination of an atmospheric model and a social system model was applied to study the coupled system of people and air through scenarios.

The results indicate that reduced multi-pollutant emissions lead to changes in ambient pollutant concentrations, but the change is likely non-linear, especially for particles. A small decrease in emissions may even produce an increase in particle mass concentration, while the total number of particles in the air decreases. This happens because of different processes affecting the formation and evolution of atmospheric particles. Behaviour change that produces emission reductions may be induced via various pathways. There is more evidence for the effectiveness of sanctions, but incentives appear to be at least as effective. Given time, even a small improvement in the opportunities to make sustainable choices may lead to significant reductions in emissions and ambient particle concentrations.

The research concludes that the evolution of both the prevalence of sustainable choices and air pollution includes non-linearities that are necessary to address in the investigation of observed and potential changes. Holistic and multidisciplinary research, as demonstrated in the thesis of Mira Hulkkonen, enables understanding the effectiveness of changing human behaviour for managing the wicked problems of climate change and urban air pollution.
Last updated: 12.10.2022