Winter is coming… and so is smog

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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winter [PKEE]

Winter is coming and we will soon hear more alarming stories about smog. Air pollution continues to have a significant impact on the health of European citizens, particularly in urban areas.

The European Environment Agency estimates that long-term exposure to poor air quality is responsible for over 400,000 premature deaths in Europe every year [based on data from Air quality in Europe — 2020 report, European Environment Agency, Luxembourg, 2020], a number that is twice the size of the population of the city of Brussels.

The toll of smog varies depending on the region but it is worth mentioning that air pollutants caused nearly 50,000 premature deaths in Poland in 2018.

Why is the situation so bad?

The worst air quality read-outs are reported during winter, in particular when temperatures are very low resulting in high demand for heat, and when the air is still. As concluded in a report [Power sector for air quality, Polish Electricity Association, Warsaw, 2018] published by the Polish Electricity Association, smog in Poland is mostly caused by old and inefficient coal or wood-burning stoves used in households.

Very often, fuels of the poorest quality are used in them, such as low-quality coal or even rubbish, for example plastics and rubber. This results in the emission of significant amounts of dangerous substances such as PM2.5, PM10 and various chemical compounds.

Moreover, the emissions are released from chimneys that are not very tall and located close to other residential buildings. Thus, the volume of the emissions and their circumstances mean that these so-called “low-level emissions” have the biggest impact on air quality.

Reasons for PM2.5 limit exceedance in Poland
The illustration comes from the report Power sector for air quality prepared by the Polish Electricity Association in 2018.

Immediate action needed

A practical way to resolve the problem is to replace old, inefficient household heat sources and encourage people to use good-quality fuels. In Poland, this process is supported by a governmental programme called “Clean Air”.

Under this programme, it is possible to obtain co-financing for new heat sources, such as boilers and heat pumps, which meet the highest quality standards. So far, around 340,000 applications have been submitted for a total amount of over EUR 1.2 billion.

Another preferable solution, which might be even more effective in urbanized areas, is a district heating system that provides clean heat to numerous end users. District heating is largely based on heating plants and combined heat and power plants (CHPs), which must meet strict environmental requirements set by the EU law.

Even if they combust fossil fuels, such as natural gas, their emissions are very limited and designed so as to minimize their effects on the local air quality.

“Fit for 55” not fit enough

The aim of the “Fit for 55” package is to reduce greenhouse gases in the EU by at least 55% by 2030 as well as reach the climate neutrality goal by 2050. One of the ideas of the European Commission is to drive radical changes in the heating and district heating sector.

The Commission’s proposal might bring about a reduction of CO2 but on the other hand, it would impede activities that can significantly improve local air quality. The most contentious idea is to set completely new rules for efficient district heating and cooling systems in the proposed Energy Efficiency Directive recast.

New, considerably tightened requirements consist of a higher share of high-efficiency cogenerated heat, the introduction of minimum levels of renewables or waste heat in the system, as well as a strict CO2 emission limit for CHPs.

Unfortunately, the Commission seems not to take into account the fact that adjustment to the new rules is a time consuming, expensive and extremely difficult technical challenge, which is especially problematic for large systems, which exist e.g. in Poland.

The Commission’s proposal does not provide appropriate time to adjust. A loss of the “efficient” status means in practice that it is much more difficult or even impossible to raise financing for investments.

Thus, new requirements for efficient systems would hamper the development of heating systems.

Additionally, a proposed revision of the EU Emissions Trading System might impede their conversion from being fuelled with coal to natural gas if investments like these are excluded from the scope of the Modernisation Fund starting in 2024.

Also, extending the sustainability criteria for biomass in the Renewable Energy Directive is questionable because it may significantly limit the potential of this renewable energy source to be deployed in district heating at scale.

Kill two birds with one stone

New EU regulations must take into account the different situations of individual systems and facilitate the transformation of the heating sector, while too radical rules might bring about the opposite effect, which would be adverse for everyone, especially end-users.

In countries like Poland, where heating systems are still based on coal, the only viable solution to simultaneously reduce emissions and improve air quality is to replace coal plants with sources that emit less CO2, such as CHPs based on natural gas or biomass fuels.

This process should be supported at the EU level as long as it contributes to these goals. During their further work on the “Fit for 55” package, the co-legislators must find an optimal approach towards heating, making it possible to drive emissions down while at the same time not limiting activities that are key to improving air quality and addressing health problems.

Decision-makers should bear in mind that heating systems are an important tool in achieving climate targets, but they are also a very effective weapon in the fight against winter smog.

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