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Greener home heating can help clean up our air

Seventy years ago this month, London was brought to a standstill by the Great Smog. An unusually cold snap and windless conditions mixed with the vast quantities of pollution produced by open coal fires proved to be the perfect concoction to envelop London in a thick, dirty, foggy blanket for nearly a week.


Many decades on, our air is much cleaner than it was. The Great Smog proved to be a turning point - it shifted our understanding of air pollution and led to the Conservative government introducing the 1956 Clean Air Act, which resulted in a 70 per cent decline in smoke pollution over the following decade. Since then progress has continued. Fine particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5) has fallen by over 400 tonnes since 1970, and nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution has made a similarly remarkable tumble. Improved fuel standards and the advent of cleaner energy sources have significantly improved urban air quality.


Recently, our focus has moved to pollution from transport. Policies like school streets have helped to reduce pollution hotspots, with the most successful schemes seeing a 23 per cent cut in NOx outside the gates. New active travel infrastructure, where local communities are properly consulted, will make it easier and safer still for people to choose to walk or cycle instead of driving polluting cars. And with more electric vehicles on the road, which have no tailpipe emissions, we are likely to see even deeper cuts than we've made with tougher regulations on the efficiency of petrol and diesel cars.

However, despite these improvements, air pollution remains the leading environmental threat to human health - contributing to between 28,000 and 36,000 early deaths per year. Just like in 1952, vast quantities of this problematic air pollution originate from household heating. The eight per cent of homes that burn wood produce more particle pollution than all the exhaust from road vehicles. These homes are responsible for 17 per cent of PM2.5, the most harmful air pollutant, in our air despite only one per cent of the country relying on burning wood as their primary heating source. Domestic wood burning seriously impacts people's health due to high indoor pollution, costing nearly £1bn in health-related impacts each year. Simply put, burning wood or solid fuels at home offset the progress in tackling pollution and improving public health through cleaning up transport.


This winter's cost of living crisis is likely to worsen the problem. PM2.5 pollution spikes every winter as lighting a fire creates a warm and homely atmosphere on cold days. But this year, strapped for cash, even more households will be looking to wood burning as a cheaper heating alternative. The Energy Price Guarantee and additional financial support schemes for vulnerable households will reduce this incentive, but there's more we can do to help people so they don't feel the need to turn to this polluting means of heating.


One way we can help people afford cleaner heating systems is through a home upgrades programme. Britain's housing stock is notoriously leaky, with nineteen million poorly insulated homes, costing its occupiers around £750 per year extra in their energy bills. Fixing this would make it easier for homes to ditch polluting wood burners. So far, the government has rightly focussed resources on the fuel poor and created a new Energy Efficiency Task Force with £6bn of funding over the next Parliament. However, owner-occupiers make up the lion's share of the market, and they need incentivisation too.


Introducing an employee tax benefits scheme like Cycle2work, where employers sign up so employees can pay in small, monthly instalments, tax-free, from their salaries, could support households with the upfront cost. Over 60 per cent of homes need to spend no more than £1,000 to become energy efficient, but not a lot of people have that going spare. So spreading the cost could deliver big results. The government could also introduce a revenue-neutral energy-saving stamp duty reform, to give people a tax incentive to upgrade their homes when they move.

Of course, we also need to scale up cleaner sources of heat like heat pumps. Installing a heat pump removes a significant source of air pollution in the home, particularly where residents are switching away from coal, wood or oil for heating. Heat pumps have already shown themselves to be a viable solution in cold climates, with 60 per cent of Norwegian, 43 per cent of Swedish, and 41 per cent of Finnish homes - where the average January temperature is -9°C - having them.


While policy levies are removed from our electricity bills, heat pumps are cheaper to run than their polluting counterparts. Levies ideally would stay off electricity bills once the Energy Price Guarantee ends. In an effort to turbocharge heat pumps here, the government has set a target of installing 600,000 per year by 2028, backed by the Boiler Upgrade Grant Scheme, which offers £5,000-£6,000 off the cost of a heat pump to hasten the nascent market's growth and bring down the costs of installation. As the government has already done with electric cars, the grants will be phased out as costs tumble.


It is easy to assume the problem of air pollution went away with the smog and to hope the remaining challenges will be resolved with the transition to electric vehicles. But the truth is we need to embark on a transition for home heating. Conveniently, though, many of the solutions to reduce pollution from heating are critical to our transition to net zero and a more secure energy supply.


First published by BusinessGreen. Lord Randall is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.

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