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Clean Air Strategy signals further RHI shake up

Plan to curb air pollution concerns intended to tie into wider UK environmental policy and plays up HVAC industry role to ensure cleaner solutions; further RHI revisions under consideration

Industry feedback is being sought as part of wider responses to a consultation on the government’s draft Clean Air Strategy that seeks to outline new approaches to tackle harmful emissions from HVAC functions such as the use of biomass burning and open fire heating in homes.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), devised to provide financial incentives for domestic and business properties to switch to heating systems powered by renewable energy, is also likely to be impacted by provisions in the strategy.

The draft strategy has been published as part of four interconnected government strategies that have focused on trying to tackle key environmental concerns and the economic impacts of addressing them. This interconnected approach will include the government’s new Industrial Strategy, 25 Year Environmental Plan and the Clean Growth Strategy.

A consultation will now run until August 14 looking at how best to meet aims to halve by 2025 the number of people living in areas with particulate matter levels recorded above WHO guideline limits of 10 ug/m3. Other proposals are focused on primary legislation to create new government powers on tackling air quality and focusing on the sales of cleaner domestic fuels, as well as investing in innovative new industrial and domestic technologies.

Environment secretary Michael Gove said the new strategy would not just focus on the issue of transport emissions, but also curbing reliance on burning wood and coal to heat homes, which he said contributed to 38 per cent of particulate matter emissions. Mr Gove also cited the role of cleaner fuels and stoves that are designed to produce less smoke and soot, while offering improved heating efficiency, as a vital focus of the plans.

These commitments build on a previous Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) consultation over solid fuel policy.

The draft Clean Air Strategy document stated, “Air pollution is a result of the way we currently generate power, heat our homes, produce food, manufacture consumer goods and power transport. Better, cleaner technologies and simple changes in behaviour will tackle the pollution that claims lives.”

“In the past, the priority was to tackle the biggest individual sources of pollution. As these major sources of emissions have decreased, the relative contribution of smaller and more diffuse sources of air pollution, like smaller industrial sites, product use, open fires in homes and spreading manure on farms, has increased.”

Biomass burning under RHI

Government noted in the strategy that its plans to improve air quality in the UK played into the aims of Clean Growth strategy, which looks at drastically curbing carbon reductions from homes, buildings and businesses over the next 30 years.

However, the Clean Air Strategy said that while solutions such as biomass burning can support these broader decarbonisation aims, these technologies would create challenges for air pollution unless industry is able to move away from dirtier fuels such as coal.

The strategy added, “We will ensure industrial sector roadmaps for reducing air pollution are well aligned with those for decarbonisation. Where tensions exist, we will ensure that a balanced approach is taken which supports clean growth as a whole.”

“In practice, this means integrating both air quality and climate change considerations into government policies such as energy and agriculture.”

Refocusing existing innovation funds such as RHI to jointly consider air quality factors alongside low carbon potential is also among the strategy’s key proposals.

The strategy added that RHI did include air quality requirements for participants making use of biomass systems to meet. These standards were focused on particulate matter emissions and ensuring sustainable fuels are used that are approved for specific boilers.

However, recent consultations have already been held on amending RHI rules to require applicants to show up-to-date environmental permits in order to receive future funding, according to Defra. Future consultations will also look at excluding biomass solutions from RHI eligibility if used in urban areas connected to the gas grid, as well as restricting funding for coal to biomass conversions.

Environment Act

Greener UK, which is a coalition of 13 environmental organisations including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, welcomed commitments in the strategy to introduce new primary legislation to curb air pollution, but said government must be more ambitious with regulatory reform.

Greener UK head Amy Mount argued that an ‘Environment Act’ should be introduced to ensure sustained and binding commitments to police infringements of environmental ambitions, which must also be backed by effective oversight.

She said, “None of these high standards are likely to be met without a powerful and well-resourced green watchdog. The EU has played an important role in ensuring governments implement environmental law. After Brexit, we need a new body that has the same power to take the government to court.”

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