‘Extraordinarily’ high emissions from residential biomass fuels

Published by Niall Sargent on

September 14th, 2018

The burning of biomass fuels in Irish homes is leading to “extraordinarily” high levels of air pollution, a new Irish-led study has found.

The study led by NUI Galway found Particulate Matter (PM2.5) – smog, smoke and haze particles smaller than 2.5 microns –in excess of  World Health Organisation’s 24-hour guidelines in Dublin.

Researchers found that between late November 2016 and late January 2017, the daily average quality guideline was breached one out of every five days.

In the late evening, when most emissions are emitted, hourly levels were frequently 10 times higher than the 24-hour guideline threshold.

Researchers warn that the guideline level itself is not to be regarded as a safe level since adverse health impacts can still occur well below the threshold.

Seventy per cent of the “extraordinarily-high pollution levels” are connected to peat and wood burning, the report found.

peat burning. Photo: NUI Galway

Biomass impact

This is despite the fact that only 13 per cent of residential homes uses these materials as a primary fuel type.

All of the exceedance levels, researchers found, were driven by peat and wood rather than coal or oil.

Although often labelled as a ‘carbon-neutral’ biomass fuel, the researchers found that woody biomass can lead to disproportionately poor air quality and is not necessarily environmentally friendly.

Consumption of woody biomass is set to double across Europe by 2020 and to triple globally by 2030.

Professor Colin O’Dowd, Director of NUI Galway’s Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies, said: The disproportionate sensitivity of air pollution levels to solid fuel, including climate-friendly ‘low-carbon’ solid biomass fuel is quite concerning since fuels like wood are one of the most popular choices of ‘low carbon’ biomass fuel.

“The results from this study suggest that along with promoting low-carbon or carbon-neutral solid fuels, it is especially important to fully consider the health impact from any associated air pollution emission,” he added.

“These striking results also illustrate the importance of considering the wider impacts of climate policy to avoid negative health impacts, as occurred with diesel vehicles, and ensure positive co-benefits and win-win outcomes, so that actions to mitigate against climate change benefit air quality and vice versa.”

The study, comprising an international team from NUI Galway, University College Cork, Italian CNR-ISAC in Bologna and the Chinese Academy of Science, was funded by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency, Science Foundation Ireland-MaREI Centre and the Chinese Academy of Science.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London