Tough Choices for Defra on Air Quality

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In 1995 the UK emitted about 160,000 tonnes of fine particulate pollution (PM2.5), with manufacturing and construction making up about 20% of those emissions.  Fast forward 20 years to 2015 to see just how much these sectors have achieved, with UK total emissions of PM2.5 down to 100,000t and manufacturing and construction contributing less than 15% of that.  That means that manufacturing and construction PM2.5 emissions have more than halved in 20 years.

In contrast, residential combustion, that’s the smoke from wood and coal burning stoves, increased from about 20% of the UK’s total emissions of 160,000t in 1995 to over 30% of the 100,000t total in 2015.  

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is well aware that residential consumption is the major source of PM2.5 and that it has increased over the last 20 years.  Defra recently put out a Call for Evidence on domestic consumption [https://consult.defra.gov.uk/airquality/domestic-burning-of-wood-and-coal/] and later this year more is to come with consultation on a Clean Air Strategy that will include all sources of PM2.5 and also other pollutants.

The Mayor of London has also highlighted wood and coal burning stoves as a major concern. In January 2017, pollution from wood burning was a major contributor to the highest levels of pollution recorded in London since 2011, resulting in a winter smog lasting nine days.  In the recent cold weather experienced in London, the Mayor said ‘during this cold weather, we want to ensure that air pollution caused by wood burning across the capital is kept to a minimum’.  In my opinion that’s a great intention but tighter controls is what’s required to effectively reduce these emissions, just like they have in manufacturing.  

The manufacturing sector’s reductions in PM2.5 and other pollutants have been achieved through strict controls.  Since 2010, the key driver has been the Industrial Emissions Directive which is an EU directive that commits member states to control and reduce the impacts of industrial emissions on the environment.  The directive aims to reduce emissions from industrial production using a polluter pays approach, with targets based on best available technologies. Meeting these goals can be expensive, but companies know competitors in Europe should be facing the same expenditure.

Maybe a polluter pays approach accompanied with identifying best available technologies could help reduce PM2.5 emissions from wood burners as well? It is a difficult area especially given how attached we are to wood burners, but for the sake of cleaner air, action is urgently required. PM2.5 is particulate matter below 2.5µm in size, the size at which particulates can be inhaled into your lungs. Exposure to them can be linked to a range of heart and lung problems.  Children, the elderly and those with existing heart and lung issues are known to be more susceptible to the health impacts from PM2.5. 

PM2.5 is just one of five pollutants Defra will be addressing this year in the Air Quality Strategy, the others are Nitrogen Oxides, Sulphur Dioxide, Volatile Organic Compounds and Ammonia.  The Strategy will address all emission sources, including domestic, transport, agriculture as well as industry, with the intention of meeting EU emissions ceilings for 2020 and 2030.   

There will be some tough choice to make and we are encouraged that Defra is looking at all emission sources and isn’t scared to tackle wood burners, despite how close they are to people’s hearts. For the manufacturing sector we are also pleased that Defra recognises the achievements made to date and that the process for reducing emissions is driven from an existing well established process that is achieving real results. 

This blog was first published on Business Green https://www.businessgreen.com/bg/opinion/3027927/tough-choices-for-defra-on-air-quality  

 

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Senior Climate & Environment Policy Adviser

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