The air that I breathe…

“Sometimes, all I need is the air we breathe and to love you” the Hollies sang, but although we need a bit more than air, we do need air to be clean, free from pollution and of high quality. In the United Kingdom, in the face of the fresh westerly winds that gather moisture and discharge moisture and particulates into the Atlantic Ocean, we should have cleaner air than many places, but our air quality is declining and our people are increasingly suffering from disease and mortality caused by poor air quality.

In the 1950s much of the poor air quality evidenced in smogs, created by households burning coal. In the 1960s the increased number of cars and the smoke stack industries were the culprits. Since then great gains have been made in air quality but those gains will likely be reversed as the Renewable Heat Incentive will pay people to burn wood in biomass boilers.

The decision to subsidise wood burning is a poor decision founded upon ignorance and confusion. Biomass is only partly sustainable in the United Kingdom. Much of it will have to be imported or transported long distances. You cannot grow as quickly as you cut down. But because wood is thought to be sustainable in the sense we can grow more, we now will have, from October 2012 if things go to plan, a heavily subsidised biomass fuel because it seems to me that the government has believed in its confusion that wood burning is somehow low carbon or carbon neutral and will assist in the struggle against climate change.

In fact there is very good evidence that most biomass boilers in theUnited Kingdomwill add to global warming and worsening air quality. In February last year a consultation paper on the Renewable Heat Incentive proposed a significant relaxation in emission standards for smaller biomass boilers under 20MW because if these emission standards of biomass boilers were made to comply with gas boilers it  “would rule out most currently produced biomass boilers”. I cannot imagine a more confused bit of thinking. In order to attempt to do good the government knowingly proposes harm.

Biomass boilers can be made to comply with emission standards of pollutants but that is expensive and requires regular and expensive maintenance. The rules should require that biomass boilers not to add pollutants to the air, rather than permit them, with public subsidy, to add nitrous oxide particulates and black carbon to the air that we breathe. In fact the government has not even bothered to consider black carbon emissions in their biomass pollutant calculations.

Air pollution is terribly important and affects the health of all of us.

The Committee on the Medical effects of Air Pollution have concluded:-

a. Removing all anthropogenic (‘human-made’) particulate matter air pollution

(measured as PM2.5) could save the UK population approximately 36.5 million life years over the next 100 years and would be associated with an increase in UK life expectancy from birth.

b. A policy which aimed to reduce the annual average concentration of PM2.5 by

1 µg/m3 would result in a saving of approximately 4 million life years or an increase in life expectancy of 20 days in people born in 2008.

c. The 2008 burden of anthropogenic particulate matter air pollution is, with some simplifying assumptions, an effect on mortality in 2008 equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths in the UK at typical ages and an associated loss of total population life of 340,000 life-years. The burden can also be represented as a loss of life expectancy from birth of approximately six months. 

d. The uncertainties in these estimates need to be recognised: they could vary from about a sixth to double the figures shown.

You can read the full report at

The Renewable Heat Incentive should be an important tool to reduce the effects of fast climate change and provide some energy security. Subsidising biomass does neither. Large scale wood burning in an industrialised society is likely to increase the pace of climate change and reduce energy security. It is also likely to damage our health. The subsidy for wood burning should be removed from the renewable Heat Incentive until we are sure that we can burn wood in a safe and genuinely low carbon and sustainable way.

One Response

  1. Hi Robert.

    Really thought-provoking post. I recently wrote about the new biomass blant to be built in Holyhead, Anglesey (, and it was really the first time that I had investigated the arguements for and against the use of biomass in the UK.

    For the Holyhead plant, almost 2.4m tonnes of wood will be imported from other countries, which seems excessive. I hadn’t really given much consideration as to the effect that this type of technology will have on air quality.


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