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Incentives to reduce climate change should not increase air pollution

During the last week of September prominent figures from government, finance, business, and civil society came together in New York for the United Nations Climate Summit 2014 to catalyse meaningful action to address climate change. Many climate-related actions may bring co-benefits for the reduction of air pollution both locally and globally. However, this is not a given: it is crucial that such policies are carefully designed to ensure they do not shift the problem from climate change to air pollution. That could pose implementation problems for States wanting, on the one hand, to comply with their climate-related obligations and, on the other hand, to comply with their air pollution reduction obligations under the UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention) and its protocols.

Earlier this year the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that in 2012 almost 600,000 deaths in the European region were attributable to air pollution, with the vast majority (482,000) caused by outdoor air pollution. A more recent report by the Task Force on Health Aspects of Air Pollution, a joint body of the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health and the UNECE Air Convention, highlights the adverse effects that residential heating with wood and coal has on human health. The report, “Residential heating with wood and coal: health impacts and policy options in Europe and North America” notes that residential heating with wood has been encouraged as one of the important pillars of climate or renewable energy policies. Its share has increased in some countries in Europe and North America as a result of government incentives, the increasing costs of other energy sources and its public perception as an environmentally friendly option.

Most residential burning of solid fuels takes place in devices that combust the fuel incompletely due to low temperature and other limitations, and leads to high emissions of air pollutants such as  particulate matter (PM) and carbon monoxide, as well as black carbon (BC), a component of PM which additionally has a strong warming influence on climate. The fraction of outdoor fine particulate matter (PM2.5) caused by household heating with solid fuels (including wood and coal) is especially high across many parts of Europe, accounting for 12% of total PM2.5 in Western Europe, 21% in Central Europe and 13% in Eastern Europe in 2010.

In 2012, Parties to the UNECE Air Convention adopted emission reduction targets for PM2.5 for 2020 and beyond and decided to prioritize those mitigation measures that focus on BC reductions. However, according to the Task Force report, biomass burning for residential heating will become an increasing source of PM2.5 without the use of modern and efficient heating devices. This calls for a serious consideration of local and global impacts of residential wood burning on air pollution and human health when promoting it as part of renewable energy and climate change-related policies. Mitigation options exist and the recent Task Force report provides examples of both regulatory and voluntary measures to reduce emissions from wood heating in developed countries.

The report on residential heating and its policy implications was elaborated under the Working Group on Effects, a subsidiary body to the Air Convention, which met for its thirty-third session from 17 to 19 September 2014 in Geneva. The Working Group on Effects provides information on the extent of the impacts on human health and the environment of major air pollutants, such as sulphur, nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals and particulate matter based on the understanding that such information is a prerequisite for effective pollution control.

For more information, please visit: http://www.unece.org/env/clrtap/wge33.html