The Irish Times view on air pollution: seeing through the smoke

Dirty air will damage our health if we respond to rising oil and gas prices by burning more solid fuels

We are only beginning to grasp the implications of the global energy crisis, which has arisen in its most immediate form from Russia’s cutting off gas supplies to Europe. The core insight of ecology, that everything in the world is connected, is verified once again in the cascade of grave consequences flowing from the Russian move. And we should go back further, and understand our current plight as the consequence of the EU’s failure to end its dependence on oil and gas – and on their despotic producers. This crisis is long foretold, by climate scientists and political scientists alike.

This week leading Irish experts warned that air pollution will damage our health nationally if we respond to rising oil and gas prices by burning more solid fuels. Trends show that some of us are already doing this. Burning solid fuels, especially turf, briquettes and undried wood, emits air pollutants which annually cause more than seven million premature deaths globally, more than 1,300 in Ireland. These deaths are mainly due to particulate matter such as PM2.5 which causes asthma attacks, COPD, and lung cancer.

By one measure, set by the EU, our record on air pollution is good. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2021 report shows that we have not exceeded EU limits across nine air pollutants, including PM2.5. The 1990 ban on selling particularly smoky fuels in urban areas, introduced by Mary Harney, saved many lives.

However, the ban needs to be extended, to all suburban areas at least, nationwide. For as the EPA report also shows, six air pollutants including PM2.5 do endanger our health currently, according to the more stringent, and more medically credible World Health Organisation recommendations.


Rising oil and gas prices will understandably tempt many to burn cheaper smoky fuels in winter, despite the health risks. This is a wicked problem, typical of our era. It can only be resolved by treating this crisis as an opportunity to move energetically beyond all fossil fuels, towards truly sustainable energy systems, without further delay.