Can someone explain air pollution to me?

One of the great changes that has happened in England in my lifetime is the cleaning up of the urban environment.

I\’m too young (by a decade or more) to have seen the great smogs, but I do vividly remember how houses were all, 20, 30 years ago, streaked black from the century or more of air pollution from coal burning.

My home town of Bath has, or the householders have, spent a fortune over the decades cleaning this shit off the stone of the houses, one by one. As this or that part of a terrace was cleaned those left as history had made them stood out like rotten teeth.

All of which means I\’m rather puzzled by this:

Papers published by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) on Thursday show that the 14 million householders expected to qualify for a complete energy-saving overhaul in the next 10 years may be able to choose from 23 different technologies, including cavity wall insulation and draught proofing but also covering solar water heating, wood burning stoves and biomass boilers.

I think I\’m right in saying (well, I know I\’m right about low grade coal) that you\’re not allowed to use low grade (ie non-anthracite) coal fires in urban centres in the UK, nor wood fired.

So how are we going to be allowed to have all these wood burners then? And if the rules have changed, then what is going to be the effect on air quality?

What will, say, Nottingham be like when everyone is gaily burning Sherwood Forest to keep warm?

Have I missed something or have the promoters of these plans done so?

11 thoughts on “Can someone explain air pollution to me?”

  1. My understanding is that there are exempt appliances and fuels including modern wood burners burning untreated dry wood. Even so, if enough people use them, air quality will will probably suffer.

  2. I think a modern techy wood burning stove produces less pollution than a car exhust.

    Whether this differentiates between them, or simply says “wood burning stove” is another question.

  3. 1) Ljomborg claims in his book that air pollution measurements trended down right through the passing of the Clean Air Act without any change in slope. Worth remembering. (Also worth checking, but I haven’t.)
    2) Sherwood Forest was a “Forest” i.e had special laws about hunting deer. It was not a “forest”, i.e. not trees and trees and more bloody trees, though it did have bits of woodland, apparently. As for now – who knows?

  4. The answer to the question is our old favourite “technology” – it has advanced since the 1950s, so we can now burn wood cleaner.

    I believe anti-smog regulations in most cities exempt only certain specified clean-burning wood stoves. This is certainly the case in Glasgow.

    dearime is broadly correct, the section on particles in The Skeptical Environmentalist does note that several studies have failed to find any effect of the UK Clean Air Act of 1956, but notes small effects of legislation found in some American cities. The section on SO2 is ambiguous about the effect of regulation – it does note that pollution was already falling before the various clean air acts etc, but also appears to credit regs with some of the decrease.

  5. You will not get quite enough government subsidy for woodburning stoves to cover the cost of the government licence to have one in urban areas. The licence fees will, like congestion charging in London, cost as much to collect as they raise.

  6. Peter MacFarlane

    There’s no chance at all of that number of woodburners actually coming into use (they may be purchased and installed, but that is another matter).

    Have you tried buying a load of logs recently? Even in a rural area?

    If load of town-dwellers jump on this bandwagon too, woodburners will be for the likes of Polly only. And premier-league footballers of course, but somehow I don’t think they will be interested.

  7. Peter, log-burning may be a euphemism for something that Premier League footballers do enjoy.

  8. But yes, buying logs, even out here in the country, started getting more difficult early last year.

    Possibly more modern log-burning boilers being installed, possibly just high fossil fuel prices meaning people with old stoves or fireplaces are using them more.

  9. Tim is quite right about the blackened buildings.And I can remember smogs in London(called The Smoke for good reason) and Manchester .If the disappearance of smog was not down to the Clean Air Act ,it was a remarkable coincidence.What other explanation is there?
    The cleannness of the air and the brightness of the sky now would make anybody who has experienced smogs very suspicious of the idea that global warming was caused by increased pollution.More like decreased pollution has removed a lot of cloud cover and smoke trapped by inversion layers or whatever they’re called.

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