Britain. A breath of foul air

Today the Independent on Sunday ran one of the campaigning articles it does best on its front page:

Britain. A breath of foul air

The UK faces £300m in fines after failing to meet EU pollution targets, but Britons also pay the price with heart disease, asthma and cancer

More than 50,000 people are dying prematurely in the UK every year, and thousands more suffer serious illness because of man-made air pollution, according to a parliamentary report published tomorrow. The UK now faces the threat of £300m in fines after it failed to meet legally binding EU targets to reduce pollution to safe levels.

Air pollution is cutting life expectancy by as many as nine years in the worst-affected city areas. On average, Britons die eight months too soon because of dirty air. Pollutants from cars, factories, houses and agriculture cause childhood health problems such as premature births, asthma and poor lung development. They play a major role in the development of chronic and life-shortening adult diseases affecting the heart and lungs, which can lead to repeated hospital admissions. Treating victims of Britain's poor air quality costs the country up to £20bn each year.

Nearly 5.5 million people receive NHS treatment for asthma, and more than 90,000 people were admitted to hospital as a result of the disease in England in 2008/09. US research has found that the lungs of children who live in highly polluted areas fail to develop fully.

Poor air quality is caused by three key pollutants – nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and ozone – where Britain fails to meet European safety targets.

Britain is Europe's worst emitter of nitrogen oxides and exposed 1.5 million people to unsafe levels in 2007, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Long-term exposure can cause breathing problems, worsen asthma and bronchitis in children and aggravate allergies. They are by-products of burning fuel, and contribute to acid rain and make plants more susceptible to disease. Despite almost halving emissions since 1990, Britain is widely expected to fall short of the 2010 EU target for nitrogen oxides, which are a precursor to particulate matter (PM), the most dangerous of all pollutants. They play a major role in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in adults which will affect more people than heart disease by 2020.

Particulate matter is airborne and comes from materials ranging from sulphates, ammonia, carbon and water to mineral dust. Sources include coal burning, exhaust emissions, tyre wear, quarrying and construction. There is no safe level of PM; some people are affected by very low concentrations over a long period. It is also linked to heart disease and cancer ...

Independent on Sunday, 21 March 2010

Obviously this is a headline grabbing story, and that makes it hard to break things down into any detail to look at specific solutions to the problem. The report tomorrow will have the detail. But the big picture is clear: we are part of a UK that takes an extraordinarily blasé, cavalier approach to air pollution and health. The UK simply does not take it as seriously as it should.

The cause of the vast majority of this pollution is burning things: to produce energy and for transport in the main ... though another thing that is set to increase markedly in the next few years, with the potential for yet more harmful effects, is burning waste.

So how does this relate specifically to Wales?

Earlier in the week, the Welsh Government published its policy statement on energy, A Low Carbon Revolution. I was going to write something about it, but John Dixon beat me to it in this post and said much of what I would have said anyway. He does that a lot. He said the policy aims are all well and good, but the document said very little about how those aims are going to be achieved. What I would add is that a prime reason for this is that the Welsh Government is simply not able to do much more than talk about energy; the decision making power generally lies with the Department of Energy and Climate Change in Westminster ... although implementation of policy for large scale schemes has now passed to the Infrastructure Planning Commission, something I commented on here.

However one thing is stands out very clearly from the Welsh Government's document:

Based on Wales’ natural advantages in areas such as wind and marine renewable resources, our aim will be to renewably generate up to twice as much electricity annually by 2025 as we use today and by 2050, at the latest, be in a position where almost all of our local energy needs, whether for heat, electrical power or vehicle transport, can be met by low carbon electricity production.

We can easily generate all the electricity we need in Wales from renewable sources, though I'm not entirely sure that I'd put the figure as high as twice what we need. I reckon it's possible, but I'd rather concentrate on some firm plans for generating what we need first. (It's also worth noting the semantic shift in the quote. The first part is energy from renewables, the second is for "low carbon" electricity ... which would include nuclear. But we definitely do not need nuclear energy to generate the electricity we consume. They seem to envisage a scenario where we have electricity coming out of our ears, so that we'll have to use the surplus for cars and heating ... but that's an aside.)

The big problem for Wales is that we're attached to the rest of the UK. On our own, we already produce more electricity than we need, and we're set to produce a whole lot more with two new gas-fired power stations at Newport and Pembrokeshire. Energy policy in Scotland is devolved, and in Northern Ireland is considered on an all-Ireland basis, but we are lumped in with an England that has very different needs ... consequently we are forced to live with an energy policy that suits England rather than Wales. England has much more limited choices than we have: it has less favourable renewable energy resources anyway, but this is exacerbated by it being a much more densely populated country. It therefore needs fuel-burning electricity production in a way that Wales doesn't, and I think that it is because of this need that the government is so cavalier about the amount of pollution burning such fuels produces.

But what is so unfair about the way Wales is treated is that we're still tied to polluting ways of producing energy. Not only is a coal burning power station like Aberthaw one of the dirtiest ways of burning fuel for electricity, but we actively pursue even more dirty ways of extracting the coal to feed into it. Where else but in Wales would we develop open cast mines within a stone's throw of houses and schools? Why would we even think of then opening new ones such as at Varteg and Rhyd-y-car? The dust produced from such operations directly adds to health problems.

Then on top of that we are actively proposing waste incineration plants which will throw even more pollutants into the air than any power station, because there is no way of controlling the quality of waste when burnt as a fuel. For more on that, please read this.


So what are the solutions? First and foremost we must be free in Wales to decide our own energy policy for ourselves. What the UK stubbornly refuses to do, we can easily do. Our priority in Wales must be to achieve the goal of generating all our electricity from renewables. That means putting an emphasis on investing in technologies that suit our most prevalent natural resource, the tides. Instead of one "all or nothing" mega-project of the sort so loved by outgoing governments as a legacy which others will have to pick up the bill for, we need to have started developing lots of smaller projects to harness both tidal range and tidal flow. I am convinced that we could get all party consensus on this issue, particularly since it was part of the All Wales Accord (or Rainbow Alliance) between Plaid, the Tories and the LibDems to generate all our electricity from renewables.

The second is that we must stop generating electricity from coal, and must wind down open cast mining in Wales. Irrespective of climate change, we cannot justify either mining or burning it on health grounds. But to get that policy changed will mean not returning a Labour Government at the next Assembly elections, for they are the ones who forced things like Ffos y Frân onto Merthyr ... with willing assistance from local Labour Councillors. We'd do better to save it for the time we'll need it ... because when there's no oil left for burning as fuel, it will be needed for the plastics and chemicals industry.


It might also be worth noting that on the same day as the Welsh Policy was announced, DECC also published its Marine Energy Action Plan 2010 which paid more attention about how to move forward, rather than just state targets. I feel another post coming.

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Carl Morris said...

George Monbiot's speech at Pierhead Sessions in Cardiff is highly relevant here and worth a look.

MH said...

Thanks Carl. I watched them last night and he was on top form.

I thought it deserved a new post, and I hope your blog gets some new visitors as a result.

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