Air quality policy: don't forget heating oil!

Published:  09 June, 2017

Phil Hurley asks why the political party's manifestos have failed to give emissions from heating the attention it deserves, and explains why he believes replacing oil systems with more emission-friendly systems can help improve air quality.

Air quality is a hot topic and featured heavily in the recent political manifestos. But dangerous emissions from heating have not been given the attention it deserves. Last year, ClientEarth successfully took the UK Government to the High Court over what the court ruled to be illegally poor plans to tackle the country's current air quality crisis.

Levels of NOx in the air have regularly exceeded safe and legal levels in the UK, and the court ruled that the Government should develop a new plan to tackle these issues "as quickly as possible". After some delay, this plan was published on 5 May, 2017. With 40,000 UK deaths linked to air pollution, and related health problems costing the UK economy more than £20 billion every year, according to the Royal College of Physicians, radical steps must be taken to tackle this issue.

The Government's plan focused solely on transport and, while road transport does account for 34% of UK NOx emissions, the remaining two-thirds come from other sources including domestic heating. It is essential that these sources are also tackled. An obvious solution to this is by replacing old, inefficient oil boilers with low emission, future-proofed heating systems.

There are 1.1 million oil boilers in the UK. Together, they emit 4,540 tonnes of NOx per year. This is equivalent to the emissions from over 2.3 million Euro 5 (2009 standard) diesel cars, all driving a typical annual mileage. This suggests that running an oil boiler is equivalent to running two additional diesel cars per household!

One of the key proposals from the Air Quality Plan is a diesel car scrappage scheme. While the Government focuses on taking diesel vehicles off the road, they could additionally be helping off-grid households to switch away from oil, providing similar environmental benefits. There is much crossover between the need to support users of old diesel cars to buy new low-emission cars, and off-grid homes saddled with old, inefficient oil boilers. The Government can help these households make the necessary switch to a low-pollution heating system such as a heat pump. These can offer consumers renewable and reliable heat, without the high carbon and NOx emissions associated with the use of oil. Rolling out an oil boiler scrappage scheme across the UK would provide that support.

Boilers installed today will continue to spout pollution for the next 20 years until they are replaced. Using the Government's numbers on the health costs of NOx emissions to society, the emissions from oil boilers have a social cost of more than £66 million a year. More needs to be done to encourage homeowners to replace their systems before they reach the end of their life and to instead install efficient, low emission heating systems such as heat pumps. Not only will this reduce air pollution, improve well-being and health, it will also reduce carbon emissions thus contributing to tackling climate change. The truth is, renewables are the only real energy-secure, future-proof solution to the UK's energy crisis.

If the Government is committed to addressing air pollution, it must also consider the full impact of fossil-fuel based heating. Introducing a boiler scrappage scheme to install ultra-efficient renewable technology like heat pumps, alongside the diesel car scrappage scheme, will encourage homeowners to change their inefficient boilers now, rather than allowing them to continue to pollute the environment, damage health and contribute towards climate change over the coming years.

Phil Hurley is managing director of NIBE

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