Smoky coal ban and solid fuel controls a model for others, says WHO director

Urgent action needed as 400,000 premature deaths a year in Europe are related to air pollution

The Government's move to implement a national ban on smoky coal and tighter controls on solid fuels should serve as a model for other countries to follow, according to the World Health Organisation's director of public health Dr Maria Neira.

The need for urgency had to be seen in the context of 400,000 premature deaths a year in Europe due to air pollution, which was mainly arising from burning solid fuel – notably wood used to heat homes –and road traffic, she told The Irish Times.

While Europe was faring much better than other parts of the world in addressing this public health threat, concerted actions could easily reduce its death toll, Dr Neira said.

“Politicians and governments need to recognise that and its link to climate change,” she added. It was all a consequence of burning fossil fuels. The need for urgent action in transitioning to clean energy was to “reduce our vulnerability”.

Ultimately, it was up to individual countries to decide how many lives to save. If they could only afford to save 100,000 lives over a decade, they would have to justify that with their citizens. “Nobody can say they didn’t know,” she underlined.

Her team had confirmed recently there were more than 70,000 research papers providing evidence of health impacts from air pollution. With the most toxic pollutant, PM2.5, it was clear “it goes everywhere, from the lungs into the blood and then the brain”.

So it was linked to neurodegenerative disease, behavioural disorders and impaired cognitive function, “which is really serious for children”. Reduced intellectual capacity as a consequence may explain why people do not respond more urgently, she suggested.

‘Creative and exciting’

There was a need to stop fossil fuel subsidies. “That would be a very strategic investment...What are we waiting for?”

While Scandinavian countries led the way in embracing sustainability transport and transitioning to renewable energy, there were many “creative and exciting” approaches being implemented in cities such as London, Paris and Barcelona, Dr Neira said.

Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir, who is based at MaREI energy institute in UCC, said there was an additional problem related to fuel poverty; namely “excess winter deaths arising from inadequate heating”. This underlined the need to ban smoky fuels and change the way homes are heated through extensive retrofitting of houses, he believed.

It was estimated in 2015 that 2,800 deaths occurred annually on an all-island basis due to cold weather and inadequate heating, he confirmed. “This doesn’t get as much attention as the estimated 1,300 annual air pollution related deaths. A concerted effort on addressing fuel poverty in parallel with banning smoky fuels, could have multiple health benefits,” he added.

“Can we ban smoky fuels and deep retrofit and install heat pumps into the 400,000 homes in receipt of fuel allowances over the next 10 years to improve health and the environment?” he asked.

The move to impose a State ban on the burning of smoky coal by home-owners and prepare strict new regulations on the burning of all other solid fuels, especially so-called "wet wood" was announced yesterday by Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan.

He launched a public consultation on the move with the closing date for submissions being Friday, April 2nd, 2021.

Financial assistance

Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen called for great financial assistance and subsidies to encourage the move from the burning of certain fuels, rather than ultimatums and demands.

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s News at One, he said he had no problem with the proposal to extend the ban on the burning of smoky coal as was included in the Programme for Government, but many could not afford the move to alternatives so there needed to be a transition period.

There was no commitment in the Programme for Government, he said, with regard to the banning of peat and timber. “I say that in the context of having negotiated the agreement on behalf of my party, but also in the full knowledge that 13.6 per cent of households nationally burn solid fuel.

“In Offaly that figure is 40 per cent so even if you allow for 50 per cent of those using a complementary source, one in five use turf as a primary source of heat, of hot water, and in many cases, in cooking.”

Those households would need to be offered incentives and grants to make the transition towards alternative sources of power.

The consultation document issued by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications indicates there is no proposal to ban turf cutting, while turbary rights will continue to be recognised – a position confirmed by Mr Ryan.