Burning is never climate friendly

You could ask what climate change has to do with air pollution? They are linked, but not opposed and we can find ways to reduce our impact on the climate, and on the air, at the same time.

Running from 30 November to 12 December 2023, Conference of the Parties (COP) 28, is a meeting of 198 countries that have signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. All participating countries have made a shared commitment to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system”.

Reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels is a key requirement for reducing greenhouse gas concentrations so how can we reduce carbon emissions and air pollution at the same time?

Home heating is an obvious place to start reducing our carbon footprint and air pollution emissions. These fossil fuel sources have been a significant contributor to household heating:

  1. Coal – the sale of traditional house coal has now been banned but it is still possible to buy, and burn anthracite, semi-anthracite, and low volatile steam coal. In our 2022 survey 34% of respondents with an open fire or solid fuel burning stove listed coal as their most commonly used fuel.
  2. Oil – the DESNZ Public Attitudes Tracker for spring 2023 shows 4% of households using oil-fired central heating as their primary heating method.
  3. Gas – In the DESNZ Public Attitudes Tracker for spring 2023, 57% of households reported using gas central heating as their main form of heating.

The main heating options often cited as alternatives to fossil fuels at home are electricity and biomass combustion, however it is important to consider the full climate and air quality implications of these options.

Electric heating systems can be traditional room or portable heaters, but new electric heating systems are frequently heat pumps. If you use electric heating, there are some electricity providers who promise lower carbon electricity sources. You can be confident that your electricity is low carbon by generating your own. The Boiler Upgrade Scheme can offer a grant of £7,500 towards an air source or ground source heat pump. It can be possible to install solar panels to help offset the electricity costs of running the heat. This could lead to a low carbon solution that is good for the planet, air quality and monthly budget. The Energy Saving Trust and Seasonal Health Intervention Network can provide energy advice.

Biomass systems for domestic use usually burn wood, either as logs, chips, or pellets, and can be biomass boilers or solid fuel burning stoves. An open fire is another type of appliance burning biomass. Wood is a natural, renewable resource and, on the surface, this seems like a good choice. The two disadvantages to wood that we will consider here are:

  1. Wood as a fuel, is not carbon neutral. There is an argument that each tree releases the same amount of carbon whether it is burnt, or allowed to rot, and while that is true on the surface, this does not take into account the timescales involved as it may take many years for a tree to rot down and make all of the carbon available to other purposes. When trees are planted, and harvested, fossil fuels are involved in the cultivation, harvest and transport of the wood. Last year the UK imported 7.5 million tonnes of wood pellets and briquettes from countries including Latvia and the USA. These imports use fossil fuels for transport.
  2. The air that we breathe is being polluted by the PM2.5 (small particle) pollution caused by open fires and wood burning stoves.

Where sometimes climate and pollution may seem to be at odds, this NASA project is using the tools of climate change to help us measure air pollution. There is also growing evidence that climate change is leading to worse air quality in areas that are experiencing worsening wildfires.

Together we can create a better world by reducing our climate impacts and pollution together.

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