The war on air quality will be won, but at the current rate there will be plenty of casualties along the way.
Whilst the car industry motors towards an electric future, our buildings are being left behind. Last month Michael Gove announced that from 2040 all vehicles will be all-electric (or at least zero emission). This is a helpful commitment and a promising indicator of the government’s environmental ambitions, but is perhaps not as bold as it first seems. The air quality issue in our cities (NOx, at least) will be over by 2040. Technological advances suggest no-one will be building petrol/diesel vehicles by then. Having said this, 2040 is a long way away and it still means someone born today will be an adult by that time and will have had to live with poor air quality for their whole life.
Building better air quality
The focus for air quality has consistently been on vehicles but buildings are a very large part of the problem, contributing 38 per cent of NOx emissions in central London. Unfortunately they get very little attention, despite the fact they can be dealt with now. We are still in a situation where the standard source of heating and hot water for new buildings is a gas fired boiler which, although ever cleaner, still emit significant NOx emissions.
There is no need for this to be the case. Almost all new homes and commercial buildings can be serviced with electric-powered heat pumps emitting nothing at the point of use.
The focus for air quality has consistently been on vehicles but buildings are a very large part of the problem, contributing 38 per cent of NOx emissions in central London.
A change of policy is required
National and local policy is generally unhelpful on this with the use of renewable energy encouraged generally but no preference for electric buildings or solar hot water. Policy in London and many other council areas is actually to favour gas combined heat and power (CHP), which has even higher levels of air pollution than a boiler! Part L of the Building Regulations (which sets energy efficiency criteria and CO2 emissions limits) is also unhelpful. It uses CO2 emissions factors that are now so out of date the whole system is actually increasing carbon emissions and air pollution as it favours technologies that are actually the highest carbon and polluting. There was a consultation out earlier in the year to update this but nothing has happened yet.
The London Environmental Strategy has just been released and acknowledges the mistakes around gas boilers and CHP on new developments in the past but still fails to make the call for all new developments to be zero emission at the point of use.
Industry needs to take the lead
Policy will hopefully change but not as quickly as necessary. Local planning documents that are updated every few years cannot keep up with the pace of change in technology and our electrical grid. It therefore falls to our industry to take the lead.
This is far from the first time I have written on this subject but the silence on this is deafening. I urge us all to take a lead on this. If you are a council change/make a policy that favours/requires all-electric or zero emission; if you are a developer embrace the opportunity to take a lead; if you are a consultant or engineer raise this issue with your clients.
I think the war on air quality will be won, but at the current rate there will be plenty of casualties along the way.
Barny Evans is associate director for sustainable places