NIWA air quality scientist Elizabeth Somervell will be using a new smart phone app to show kids how pollution affects trees as part of TEMP, a climate change event combining science and art.

1 What should Aucklanders worry about most in terms of our air quality?

Wood smoke and car exhaust. There's not much else really. We're lucky we're not like Australia with big coal-fired power plants or China with heavy industry shrouding our cities in heavy metals. We should all burn less wood and cut down our car use by using public transport, cycling and walking when we can.

2 Are any wood burners "safe" for our health?

The Ministry for the Environment sets a national standard for the amount of emissions per kilo of wood burnt, but the wood burners are tested in a controlled lab environment with kiln-dried sticks all the same length. You put them in people's homes and they create vastly different emissions depending on how they start their fire and what kind of wood they burn.


3 Councils are tasked with enforcing national air quality standards. How are they doing?

Christchurch banned wood burners in the early 2000s. Auckland has a proposed bylaw requiring all new wood burners to meet national standards. Some councils run incentive drives to change old wood burners out for new ones. Nelson has a "good wood" scheme to make sure people are burning dry wood that burns well.

4 Has any research been done on which interventions work best?

It's amazing how little evaluation there is of these kinds of regulations. It's partly because councils are only asked to monitor and report concentrations, which is quite different to investigating where and why you're getting those concentrations. I don't think it's just an air quality problem or a New Zealand problem. Evaluating takes time - often longer than a political cycle.

5 What should we do if our house has an old wood burner?

Research tells us the most important thing is having a warm home and according to the World Health Organisation most New Zealand homes aren't warm enough. So it's looking at the whole solution including things like insulation. It's amazing the little things you can do. I got a wood burner for the first time when I bought a house in Helensville two years ago and I've learnt that lighting a fire without the whole box filling up with smoke is a real skill.

6 Do you feel guilty about using a wood burner and commuting to work in a car?

It's an older wood burner but it heats the house efficiently so to my mind the best thing I can do is make sure I'm a responsible user which means using a lot more dry kindling than you'd expect. We installed a heat pump which we use more. Getting the burner removed would be expensive and a little part of me knows it adds resale value to the house - people like a wood burner. I should take the bus to work more often but the last bus home is at 6.30pm so the flexibility isn't there. But if I don't use it, how will it get better? That's something I struggle with and it does weigh on me sometimes. We all have these forces acting on us in day to day life.

7 Do you enjoy the public education part of your job?

Yes, it's very much above and beyond the job but this is how you start making a real difference. Getting beyond the numbers and talking to people about how they live their lives. You've got to get people when they're young. Look at recycling - the kids have led it.

8 How did you get involved in the TEMP climate change project?

A group of Niwa scientists were invited to join the "Air" group. The project's broken up into five groups looking at the ways carbon emissions affect Air, Water, Food, Weather and Shelter. We've introduced a group of 9- and 10-year-olds to atmospheric science with a project called "What clouds see" at Te Uru gallery in Titirangi.

9 How does the new phone app work?

Our partners at Imersia and AUT University have designed an app that links live traffic data to a tree so you can see how it's affected by pollutants. It's a blended reality app, so you can hold your phone up and see a leaf through the camera. The app can then superimpose things on top of that image, like the leaf will suddenly start sprouting. There's also a soundscape that goes with it. It's astonishing what they've done. We can't wait to show the kids.

10 When did you discover your passion for urban air quality?

Growing up in Takapuna I was good at most subjects and was lucky my parents instilled a love of learning for learning's sake. At the University of Auckland I did a double degree in arts and science. It's been useful for this job which is a real mix of physical and behavioural science. I went to the UK and worked as a conservation gardener where you do things like protect a hedgerow that might've been in a suburban area for centuries and is home to lots of little mammals. Or you might be invited into people's back gardens to preserve an insect ecosystem or make space for a hedgehog. I did my PhD in environmental science because most of the conservation degrees were focused on local regulations. Working in that population density you can really start to make inroads into what can and can't be done to protect environmental qualities. New Zealanders often claim we're clean and green but the reality is there's just not that many of us.

11 Are New Zealand's air quality standards stringent enough?

Science has advanced considerably since the standards were set over a decade ago. Through better instrumentation we've shown that the smallest particles in the air are doing the greatest damage to our health. Tiny particles resulting from the combustion process, like car exhaust and wood smoke, are associated with chronic lung disease, strokes, heart attacks, certain cancers, and fetal neurological development.

The air is made up of lots of particles, including larger naturally occurring ones like dust, pollen and sea salt. Our current standards only limit the amount of particles you can have per cubic metre of air in a way that doesn't account very well for the smallest particles.

12 Do you ever feel hopeless about global climate change, like it's too big a problem to fix?

I do sometimes. Are we past the point of no return? I don't know but I choose to believe we're not quite there yet. If you look back through history, there's always been war and plague and famine so I take comfort in thinking we shall survive in some form. I get frustrated with the idea that technology will save us. Our country's strategy is that we don't have to do much now because science will progress and fix it all later. I'm 41 and grew up in the Cold War when we all could have died at any moment from a nuclear holocaust. At least with climate change we do have individual agency to act.

• TEMP, until 8 April, Corban Estate Arts Centre and Te Uru gallery.