Air quality is a worldwide issue, with authorities being tasked with ways to improve the air we breathe. So what is happening across the UK? The HETAS team takes a look at the various air quality strategies and plans being developed and the impact on domestic combustion.
Air Quality Strategies and The Environment Bill
The Clean Air strategy was launched back at the start of 2019, a key document in tackling air pollution, making our air healthier to breathe, protecting nature and boosting the economy. The strategy looks at a range of actions to reduce emissions/pollution, including Transport, The home, Farming, Industry and Clean growth and innovation.
The strategy stated government will:
- legislate to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels
- ensure that only the cleanest stoves are available for sale by 2022
- make changes to existing smoke control legislation to make it easier to enforce
- give new powers to local authorities to take action in areas of high pollution
- work across government to look at opportunities to align our work on air quality, clean growth and fuel poverty in future policy design
- develop a dedicated communication campaign targeted at domestic burners, to improve awareness of the environmental and public health impacts of burning
- work with industry to identify an appropriate test standard for new solid fuels entering the market
Linked to The Clean Air Strategy, government will create a legislative framework for tackling air pollution at national and local level, tying this into the development of the new environmental principles and governance framework to be outlined in the Environment Bill.
So where are we now with The Environment Bill?
The Bill has been progressing slowly, held up by Brexit and elections, but has gained momentum in recent months. We have previously discussed the Environment Bill following it’s mention in the state opening of parliament back in October 2019. The Environment Bill is currently in the House of Commons and on the 19th March there was a Committee debate but due to current circumstances the sittings of the Committee have been suspended until further notice. MP’s voted against adding an amendment to the Environment Bill that would enshrine the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in law. Prior to the Bill being first published, there was an expectation that it would include a legally binding target for PM2.5 in line with WHO guidelines. The Bill has, however, committed to setting a target before October 31 2022.
Separately, but in support of The Environment Bill government consulted on cleaner domestic burning of solid fuels and wood. This consultation ran between August and October of 2018. The response has only recently been published and the outcome can be viewed in our summary here, with a focus on sales of wet wood, a ban on the sale of all bagged traditional house coal and manufactured smokeless fuels should conform to a test confirming sulphur content below 2% and the fuel emits less than 5g smoke per hour.
The consultation also identified that there is an existing legislative framework, which was first established by the Clean Air Act 1956 to reduce air pollution from domestic burning, particularly through the creation of Smoke Control Areas (SCAs). Some local authorities are working to raise awareness of SCAs and to re-assess their boundaries.
The measures proposed in the consultation on fuels would not replace SCAs. Instead, they would sit alongside them and provide a basis for nationwide legislation in England to ensure that only the cleanest fuels would be available for sale. We will also be considering separately what changes should be made to SCAs and what additional powers should be given to local authorities to allow for more targeted action in areas of high pollution. Any changes to SCAs or additional powers will be the subject of a separate consultation.
So what are the next steps?
The Environment Bill has some way to go to reach Royal Assent. Once a bill has completed all the parliamentary stages in both Houses (Lords and Commons), it is ready to receive royal assent. This is when the Queen formally agrees to make the bill into an Act of Parliament (law). After receiving royal assent the legislation within the bill may come into effect immediately, after a set period or only after a commencement order by a government minister.
Other Bills of interest
Some other Bills of interest that are currently active are highlighted below, both of which are Private Members’ bills. Private Members’ bills are public bills introduced by MPs and Lords who are not government ministers. As with other public bills their purpose is to change the law as it applies to the general population.
Only a minority of Private Members’ bills become law but, by creating publicity around an issue, they may affect legislation indirectly.
Summary: A bill to establish the right to breathe clean air; to require the Secretary of State to achieve and maintain clean air in England and Wales; to involve Public Health England in setting and reviewing pollutants and their limits; to enhance the powers, duties and functions of the Environment Agency, the Committee on Climate Change, local authorities (including port authorities), the Civil Aviation Authority, Highways England, Historic England and Natural England in relation to air pollution; to establish the Citizens’ Commission for Clean Air with powers to institute or intervene in legal proceedings; to require the Secretary of State and the relevant national authorities to apply environmental principles in carrying out their duties under this Act and the clean air enactments; and for connected purposes
Status: First reading took place on 13 January. This stage is a formality that signals the start of the Bill’s journey through the Lords. Second reading – the general debate on all aspects of the Bill – is yet to be scheduled.
Many regions have developed their own specific air quality strategies, here are some of the key plans in place at present.
Clean Air Plan – Wales
Following Brexit the Welsh Government worked to transfer EU legislation to ensure it works for Wales. Work to improve air quality in Wales will continue as normal, as will the work with Defra and the other devolved administrations to tackle air pollution across the UK.
As such, Welsh government is pressing on with its Clean Air Plan. HETAS has been working hard to support this plan through the domestic task and finish group for domestic combustion which was set up in February 2019.
In December the Welsh government published its Clean Air Plan consultation in March 2020.
Specifically looking at domestic combustion the consultation stated:
We are considering the impacts, risks and potential benefits of different interventions including prohibiting the sale and use of the most polluting solid fuels (which current evidence suggests is wet wood and traditional house coal), legislating to ensure only the most efficient appliances are available and regulating to ensure appliances are regularly maintained by a qualified professional.
Obviously, this draws comparisons with plans laid out in the Environment Bill, with their plans also looking to ensuring that only the most efficient and least polluting appliances are available for sale by 2022.
The consultation also identifies potential changes to existing primary legislation for exempted appliances and authorised fuels are currently listed in two Statutory Instruments and updated annually. The changes would enable an online list, the proposed changes would benefit consumers by allowing new technologies to be brought to market more rapidly as the lists can be updated on a more frequent (e.g. monthly) basis.
In a positive move the consultation recognises that existing statutory nuisance legislation exists to deal with incidents of smoke, gases, dust and odours. Such legislation does not and was never intended to tackle outdoor burning appliances. Welsh government has committed to investigate the practicalities, advantages and challenges of regulating outdoor appliances and fuels for use within a SCA or throughout Wales.
To do this they will assess the contribution domestic bonfires and fireworks make to levels of PM2.5 emissions and take a cross-Government approach to consider what, if any, further regulatory and/or non-regulatory action should be taken in this area in 2020.
With the consultation concluding in March we eagerly await the outcomes and next steps from the Welsh government.
The Environment Strategy for Scotland and Cleaner Air for Scotland
In February 2020 Scottish Government published their ‘Environment Strategy: Vision and Outcomes’. This document sets out intentions to end the country’s contribution to climate change. The vision states:
One Earth. One home. One shared future
By 2045: By restoring nature and ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change, our country is transformed for the better – helping to secure the wellbeing of our people and planet for generations to come
The strategy creates an overarching framework for Scotland’s environmental strategies.
Back in August 2019 Scotland also published it’s independent review on air quality, looking at the success of Cleaner Air for Scotland – The Road to a Healthier Future (CAFS), Scotland’s first strategy for clean air which first published in November 2015. Chaired by Professor Campbell Gemmell, the review found that concentrations and emissions of most major pollutants continue to fall as a result of action taken to date.
The review identified that the 2015 strategy didn’t consider domestic combustion and agriculture. It also recommends that further developments of CAFS should include an appropriate Scotland-wide set of plans to improve the arrangements for regulating and managing domestic and agriculture sector emissions. Practical proposals are presented for these two areas in the recent DEFRA Clean Air strategy, which this review has concluded could provide a sound basis on which to build in Scotland, with the addition of effectively addressing the existing stock of open fires and older stoves being an important consideration. The review also identified the need to take action in four areas: (1) right appliance burning the (2) right fuel, (3) consumer education and (4) proper installation and maintenance.
When it comes to levels of pollution attributed to domestic combustion the uncertainty means that setting definite reduction targets is difficult. Further research into the proportion of emissions attributable to domestic burning, as well as assessment of type and source of emissions, is required. Further monitoring of PM2.5 levels particularly in urban areas is desirable, subject to finding an
agreed method of measurement. As up to 50% of locally observed ambient concentrations of PM2.5 can relate to long-range transboundary transport of emissions from outside of Scotland (or the UK) a consistent approach at local, national and international scales is required.
HETAS has shared our scientific research from late 2019 with the relevant people in Scotland. A Review of the Impact of Domestic Combustion on UK Air quality can be viewed here.
We continue to engage with the authorities in Scotland on their future plans for their Cleaner Air for Scotland strategy.
Closely aligned to the work outlined in Section 9.5 of the Clean Air Strategy, this focuses on actions under way to tackle air pollution in Northern Ireland. A separate Clean Air Strategy for Northern Ireland is being prepared by DAERA.
DAERA has a dedicated page on air quality. Click here for more information.
Similarly, Ireland is currently developing a national Clean Air Strategy.
Smoky Coal Ban
In Ireland a ban on the burning of smoky coal and other prohibited fuels now applies in all smoky coal ban Low Smoke Zones (LSZs), to complement the ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of those fuels in those areas. This means that even “smoky” fuels bought elsewhere cannot now be burned in a Low Smoke Zone. In addition all coal sold in Ireland for home heating must meet certain minimum requirements regarding sulphur content.
Local Air Quality Strategies
Local Authorities and regions are also tasked with improving air quality, with Defra and devolved governments providing rounds of funding to achieve this. HETAS continues to engage with Local Authorities, their Building Control and Environmental Departments to offer support in relation to policy making on domestic combustion and air quality strategies.
Latest News on Air Quality Strategies and more
Keep up to date with policy developments across the UK and Ireland via the HETAS website news feed, social channels and monthly e-newsletters (all of which are available in the HETAS Technical Area).