Wednesday 19 December 2018

Burning issue: ban on use of solid fuels would be triple win on health, air quality and climate change

The cost of air pollution to the State is estimated at approximately €2 billion per year (stock photo)
The cost of air pollution to the State is estimated at approximately €2 billion per year (stock photo)

Cara Augustenborg

The silo mentality is the bane of many national issues, particularly when it comes to environmental protection.

A lack of joined up thinking has been evident in our attempts to address climate change while ignoring negative impacts on air quality, most notably when both the Irish and UK governments incentivised the purchase of more fuel-efficient diesel vehicles to address climate change while simultaneously increasing air pollution, which has been linked to human cancers, heart and lung damage, and impaired mental functioning.

The same conflict between climate action and air quality is happening now in our homes with an increasing demand for the installation of solid fuel stoves. Compared to open fireplaces, solid fuel stoves improve energy efficiency, which is key to addressing climate change. However, from an air quality perspective, no good comes from burning solid fuels and spewing pollution into our neighbour's airspace or back into our own homes.

The United Nations has proposed wood burning in the developing world should be phased out due to negative impacts on air quality and climate, yet it has become de rigueur in places like Ireland and the UK as we replace climate-unfriendly coal and peat with more sustainable wood products. This move is already starting to backfire in urban areas. Last month, London suffered dangerous smog levels attributed to wood smoke and a growing trend for solid fuel stoves.

Ireland's Environmental Protection Agency 2015 air quality report demonstrates solid fuels (including coal, peat and wood) are a predominant source of particulate matter in Ireland. Tiny airborne particles from burning solid fuel are easily inhaled and contribute to human heart and lung diseases. While Ireland generally meets international air quality standards, evidence now indicates any level of particulate matter from burning solid fuel is unsafe for human health.

The European Environment Agency reports 1,500 deaths per year in Ireland are directly linked to air pollution. The cost of air pollution to the State is estimated at approximately €2 billion per year, and the impact of solid fuels on air quality is more pronounced in rural areas where lack of connections to the natural gas grid results in higher solid fuel usage.

While being mindful of our commitment to address climate change, we also need to consider Ireland's air quality and its impacts on our health. The truth is - and this may hurt - we need to get over our obsession with burning stuff. We need warmer homes that require less energy, and we need to obtain that energy from electricity generated by renewable sources. This is the future Ireland committed to under the United Nations' climate agreement and through our national legislation on climate action and low carbon development. In practical terms, these policy commitments mean Ireland's housing stock needs to be essentially fossil fuel free for heat and electricity within the next three decades.

Such a "fossil free" transformation would have the additional benefits of improving air quality and reducing energy poverty. The EPA's 2015 Air Quality report states "a total shift from solid fuel combustion is needed before large improvements [in particulate matter pollution] will be noticed", and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment energy poverty strategy indicates households using solid fuel or oil for their primary heating source are more likely to be in energy poverty than those using other fuel sources. Burning solid fuels further subjects the most vulnerable to the negative health impacts resulting from poor indoor air quality.

Ireland's retrofit grant schemes should future-proof our housing stock instead of trapping householders in fossil and solid fuel-based systems that damage their health and need to be replaced in the next 15 years. We should further incentivise electrification of household heat systems using heat pumps and solar photovoltaics, rather than enabling further installation of gas boilers and solid fuel stoves.

The smoky coal ban is an example of great success with climate and air quality synergies. The ban has saved more than 8,200 lives since its inception in 1990. Evidence now shows, like smoky coal, all solid fuels are harmful to human health, and there are similar co-benefits for air quality and climate when such fuels are replaced by cleaner sources. The National Clean Air Strategy now being developed should begin to connect the dots, learning from the success of the smoky coal ban and striving for joined-up policies and practices that address climate, air quality, health and social inequality. Incentivising householders to move away from solid fuel combustion and toward full electrification of household energy systems would be a win on all fronts.

Dr Cara Augustenborg is an environmental scientist

Ireland's Fuel Poverty and Climate Action conference runs from March 6-9 in Dublin's Croke Park. For more information, see energyaction.ie.

Irish Independent

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