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smoky coal

Explainer: What is happening with the ban on the 'most polluting' solid fuels in homes?

The sale and burning of smoky coal is already banned in many cities and towns.

OVER THE COURSE of the next year, smoky coal and other polluting solid fuels will no longer be sold in Ireland. 

The Environment and Climate Minister Eamon Ryan yesterday confirmed the standards for domestic solid fuels which will be brought in within a year. 

The rules will impact coal, peat briquettes and wood, but turf won’t be affected.

Under current laws, the sale and burning of smoky coal is already banned in all cities and towns with populations above 10,000. 

Let’s take a look at what the changes regulations will mean in practice for households.

What are the health impacts of burning these fuels?

It is estimated that 1,300 people die in Ireland every year due to air pollution.

The burning of solid fuel to heat homes is the biggest cause of Particulate Matter (PM) in Ireland, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

These are particles suspended in the air that can be breathed in by people and cause health effects including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases like asthma. 

The EPA has said that moving to cleaner ways of heating homes would lead to a decrease in PM in the air and “much improved health outcomes” for the population.

The Irish Heart Foundation said the measures will “reduce the number of lives lost to dirty air”. 

The charity said it would be a “huge step in the right direction”.

“It is imperative that the Government, in this upcoming budget, allocates significant additional funding to the department and local authorities to monitor, enforce and police these new domestic solid fuel regulations so that we can all enjoy the benefits of cleaner air,” said Mark Murphy, Advocacy Officer with the charity.

What will change from 2022?

The most polluting solid fuels will not be available on the Irish market when the new measures are introduced. 

From 2022 the following new standards for solid fuels will apply: 

  • Coal, coal-based products, any manufactured solid fuel or peat briquettes will need to have a smoke emission rate of less than 10g/hour, reducing to 5g/hr by 2025
  • The sulphur content permitted for all fuels will be reduced from 2% to 1% over time
  • Wood sold in single units under 2m³ will be required to have a moisture content of 25% or less (moving to 20% within 4 years) and wet wood sold over these volumes will be required to come with instructions for the purchaser on how to dry this wood
  • There will be no ban on burning turn but a regulatory regime to reduce its harm on some urban areas is being looked at

So it will impact most highly polluting solid fuels, but not peat.

Minister Eamon Ryan said the government received more than 3,500 responses to its public consultation on the development of these regulations,.

“Having considered the submissions made by the public, health experts, advocacy groups, academia and industry, a framework for legislation has been developed and drafting of the regulations is underway,” he said. 

The regulations will be finalised in the next few months and will be in place for the 2022 heating season at the end of next year. 

In terms of turf, Ryan told RTÉ yesterday that the government is “not going to regulate that”. 

That’s different to what I’m saying which is a big industry selling inter-market – that’s where standards apply. It’s very different if you’re cutting sods in a bog.

Will this mean people who use these fuels will be left out of pocket to replace them?

According to Eamon Ryan, that shouldn’t be the case. 

“The current situation if you’re buying and burning fuels which are very inefficient, which are very smoky, because they’re not burning fully – that actually is the bigger waste of money,” he said. 

“People will still have fires, but it’ll be very dry wood, higher quality, better burning, more efficient, better value for money. The same rules we’ve had applying here in Dublin for many years now – no smoky coals, no smoky products. 

“If you’re going to be burning something, it’s going to be very efficient, much cleaner and in that way, clean up our air.”

There is a fuel allowance of €28 per week available to some people to help with the cost of heating homes during colder months.

This allowance is generally in place from October to April each year, lasting a total of 28 weeks, but the length is sometimes extended. 

People are paid this allowance either weekly or in two lump sums. 

People who receive long-term social welfare payments and are unable to pay for their heating needs are eligible for the fund.

The allowance increased by €3.50 per week in the 2021 Budget. In its pre-Budget submission for 2022, Alone, a charity supporting older people, called for the fuel allowance to be increased to 32 weeks and to increase by €4 each week.

It said this would minimise the impact of the carbon tax and energy supplier increases on households. 

The carbon tax is set to increase further under the 2022 Budget to be announced next month. 

Public awareness

In a Dáil written answer from July, Minister Ryan said a clean air strategy will “commit us to further cutting levels of the most damaging and dangerous pollutants in order to meet the current guideline limits recommended by the World Health Organization”. 

He said this strategy will also identify and promote measures and actions needed to reduce air pollution and promote cleaner air. 

“Where exceedance of the WHO air quality guideline value levels have been observed, these have been primarily due to the burning of solid fuel in our cities, towns and villages,” Ryan said. 

Eamon Ryan said a public awareness campaign from late September will inform people on how to reduce air pollution from domestic fires in the winter months ahead.

John Sodeau, professor emeritus of chemistry at University College Cork and An Taisce climate ambassador, suggested to RTÉ radio that particles should be measured from peoples’ chimneys to ensure compliance with new rules. 

He said if particle measurements from chimneys exceeded limitations, “they would be breaking the law” regardless of if it is from coal, fuel, wood or peat. 

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