Can the smoky fuels ban be made to work environmentally? What about fuel poverty?

Changes essential to improved air quality but poor must not pay the price

The banning of smoky fuels through the imposition of stricter domestic solid fuels standards as announced earlier this week by Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan is doable environmentally and brings many health benefits but fuel poverty issues risk scuttling the good intentions behind the move.

There is only one direction of travel when it comes to the burning coal, peat/turf and wood – from both an environmental and health perspective.

Their threat in the form of carbon emissions is indisputable, while there is simply no safe level of exposure to air pollution.

But with carbon taxes about to scale up in an attempt to force people away from using fossil fuels, those in fuel poverty are already anxious about how they will continue to heat their homes as traditional fuels become more expensive.


The imposition of new fuel standards on top of this needs to be handled carefully as there are concerns cleaner fuels will be more costly – though current reality is different. If these two factors are mishandled and the message is not got across they are necessary for Planet Earth and the health of all, Ireland could find it has its own gilet jaunes movement.

This is especially the case in rural areas, where there is perception its people are disadvantaged unfairly on many fronts. This is where fuel poverty is most pronounced, though people living in urban areas are more at risk from particulate matter arising from burning fuels.

Allied to this is scepticism. Air pollution controls have been inconsistently applied and poorly regulated. We have smoky coal bans in 42 cities and towns, while the rest of country is largely unregulated. At least, all of the country is to become a low-smoke zone from September 2022.

Focus on fuel allowance

Policy specialist with Age Action Ireland Nat O’Connor believes new standards will not necessarily push up prices. Instead, the focus should be on the fuel allowance – a modest €28 a week for those on a State pension. Only a minority receive it as “it’s is means tested tightly”. He has particular concerns about those just above the threshold.

Another big issue relates to poor insulation standards in 20th century homes, he adds, with those living in one-off housing, especially bungalows, most vulnerable. While there are tens of thousands using solid fuels, far more people are dependent on home heating oil, O’Connor notes.

Alone, which supports older people, in a pre-budget submission calls for payment of the State fuel allowance season to be extended to 32 weeks and for a €4 increase to minimise carbon tax impact and energy supplier increases on households in fuel poverty. Fuel Allowance eligibility criteria needs to be reviewed, it says.

The new measures will reduce lives lost to dirty air, the Irish Heart Foundation emphasised, but also highlighted the fuel poverty factor.

Though they will effectively ban the burning of smoky coal, wet wood and sod peat, "thousands of fuel-poverty households in Ireland still hugely reliant on these fuels, cannot be left behind", advocacy officer Mark Murphy added.

It calls for a green transition fuel allowance in the budget to support and facilitate those most vulnerable in moving away from the worst affecting solid fuels to more sustainable and healthier forms of heating.

The Solid Fuel Trade Group expressed surprise there is nothing proposed to control the burning of sod peat. It may be the fuel of choice for many homes, especially on the western seaboard and in the midlands, but Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan has flagged "a regulatory regime to reduce its harm in more urbanised areas is under examination".

Monday's announcement prompted calls for greater enforcement, which were echoed by John Sodeau, emeritus professor of chemistry at UCC. An essential additional element, he told RTÉ, needs to be a clean air act "to put the health of the nation front and foremost".

This also meant analysing and measuring particulate matter coming out of chimneys regardless of fuel source, but should include turf and emissions from wood-burning stoves. If levels exceeded limits, they would amount to breaches of the act. This is required “to protect people’s health, especially your neighbours”, he added.

The issue of turf, however, is a battle for another day