Destabilising our diesel fleet to prevent air pollution

Andrzej Jagusiewicz, president of the European Federation of Clean Air and Environmental Protection, explores how air pollution is affecting the lives of Europeans and how our air can be purified.

Toxic air pollution is the main cause of disease and premature deaths in the world today. The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health puts the toll of air pollution at nine million a year, while the World Health Organization (WHO) attributes seven million premature deaths globally to the joint effects of both household and ambient air pollution.

In the EU-28, the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that the number of fatal cases due to particulate matter (PM) alone is around 400,000 annually and stands at the same level for many years. The overall picture in Europe is still worse if we add an estimated 75,000 premature deaths due to nitrogen dioxide. According to WHO, 80% of these deaths are attributed to non-communicable diseases (NCD).

Assessing the perpetrators of air pollution fatalities

Who is the killer? Or who are the killers? What is hidden behind a very general notion of particulate matter? Who is responsible for other deaths? Chemically speaking, PM is a product of incomplete combustion and may be, or contain:

  • Mineral parts;
  • Black carbon (BC);
  • Organic carbon (OC); and
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) with benzopyrene.

But it also comes in the form of secondary pollution, due to atmospheric chemistry transforming nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) emitted from combustion into secondary PM. The main source of emissions is combustion in motor engines and boilers, household stoves and other heating appliances, including decorative chimneys, of which is mainly incomplete.

Particles of BC are typically ultra-fine (UFP) – less that 1µm in diameter, known as PM1.0 – and come in the form of charcoal, tar and soot. All have cancerogenic compound properties and are associated with cardiovascular morbidity, mortality and absorb solar energy, contributing to climate change. Incomplete combustion pollutants mainly cause:

  • Stroke;
  • Ischaemic heart disease;
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); and
  • Lung cancer.

A proposal for particulate matter

In 2011, at its third Symposium on UFP, the European Federation of Clean Air and Environmental Protection (EFCA) put forward the proposal from its scientific community for BC particles to be used as an additional metric, next to PM10 and PM2.5. At the last symposium, held in Brussels, Belgium, in 2017, the sixth in its series, EFCA provided evidence that air quality standards on UFP should relate to both size and number. It means that expressing a limit value only by weight, for example 25 µg/m3 – as the present EU standard for PM2.5 – is not enough to protect our health. A number of particles in the air volume have to be added. Moreover, UFP6 proved that highly oxidized organic compounds have a significant climate impact because they influence not only energy balance, but also, quite substantially, particle formation and growth. They may generate up to half of the cloud condensation nuclei in the atmosphere.

Therefore, the EFCA Strategy for 2018-2022 focuses on providing further evidence of the impacts and sources of UFP emissions and approaches and techniques which will contribute to their effective measurement and control. EFCA unconditionally endorses a “one atmosphere” approach, integrating climate and clean air policies and harvesting the related co-benefits.

It is needless to say, but EFCA supports the EU clean air policies, including the National Emission Ceilings (NEC) Directive, Medium Combustion Plant (MCP) Directive and the Ecodesign Directive, and related cleaner energy initiatives. This includes the ongoing revision of energy efficiency directives in heating, cooling, buildings and products. As well as this, EFCA supports work under the Air Convention set by the UN Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva, Switzerland. The latter aims to revise/extend the work of the Gothenburg Protocol. Its emission obligations are finally included in the NEC Directive in the frame of a wider context to the long-term strategy which sets targets up to 2050.

The role of diesel in premature deaths

One may say: “The diesel vehicle and domestic fireplaces we all use and can easily neutralise are enough to stop our two killers.” The response from EFCA is: “It’s not enough”. Let’s X-ray our public enemies. In Europe seven out of ten vehicles are fuelled by diesel. That’s why Europe may be called “Diesel-land”.

In contrast, the USA has a diesel fleet of only 1%, while those of China and Turkey are placed at 2%. Most diesel vehicles in Europe are registered in Germany, followed by Italy and the Benelux Union, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The best environmental performance, in terms of exhaust emissions notice, is that of Volkswagen’s (VW) vehicles in Germany, while Renault-licenced Dacias contrast that of VW. The latter emit almost ten times more pollutants. Of course, all diesel engines contribute more or less to PM, particularly to its BC fraction and PAH, as well as to NO2 emissions.

According to Transport & Environment, the total emissions per car in its lifetime – with a mileage of around 180,000 km – is around 42.65 tonnes of CO2 for diesel-fuelled cars and 39 tonnes of CO2 for petrol-fuelled in all phases of emissions – from fuel blended with biofuel to wheel-to-wheel fuel management. These emissions are already under control in the EU. The most recent, Regulation 715/2007, introduces the Euro V and VI standard for new light duty vehicles, including passenger cars and light commercial vehicles. According to Euro V and VI standards, diesel vehicles are more stringently monitored on their CO2 emissions as opposed to petrol vehicles, but are allowed higher NOx emissions: 0.08 vs 0.06 g/km.

Environmental fuel specifications have been developed by the European Standards Organization and introduced by EU Directives, including Directive 2009/30/EC. Despite this, it raises the question: why do we face so many problems? First of all, the responsibility lies with the shutdown of on-board pollution control when air temperature is below a certain level, which is illegal. For example, in Opel vehicles the limit is 17°C, meanwhile in Peugeot vehicles that figure stands at 5°C. On average, the limit for all vehicles in Europe is 9°C. An activity that is both illegal and popular sees users switch off of the PM trap, resulting in the black smoke which invades our streets and is responsible for much of the air pollution in our environment.

Then came ’dieselgate’ in Germany. Several German car makers were recently accused of cartels, collusion and breaching of environmental laws in relation to diesel vehicles. Environment and public health experts have estimated that VW’s involvement in dieselgate causes at least 5,000 premature deaths in Europe every year, without mentioning billions in consumer and environmental damage.

Guidance for change

It’s quite obvious that additional policy focused on diesel vehicles is urgently needed in the EU. EFCA welcomes the timely initiative led by the European Parliament’s Emissions Measurements in the Automotive Sector (EMIS) Committee, who highlighted substantial shortcomings in the governance of industrial and environmental policy execution and management in relation to diesel vehicles.

As a result, it is organising the multi-stakeholder high-level conference ‘Dieselgate, what next?’ at the European Parliament on 27th of June 2018. Let’s hope that its outcome will catalyse the implementation of post-Euro V/VI regulations, including mitigating measures, such as:

  • Diesel bans in cities;
  • Cleaning up a landscape of dirty diesels on the road; or
  • Driving diesel vehicles out and introducing checks over the vehicle lifespan.

Let’s also hope that effective and pragmatic solutions will come much quicker, whereby diesel vehicles will be entirely replaced by electric ones, of which is seeing strong growth in the market. It is projected that sales of electric vehicles will account for 50% of all sales in 2040, progressing from the present 1%.

Energy versus emissions

The second public enemy is residential wood combustion. Of course, we need wood and wood energy, which is the most important single source of renewable energy in the world. Unfortunately, we use wood for power and heat generation, as well as 83.6% being used in combustion, e.g. furniture manufacturing accounts for 9%, and 9% in residential burning. Household fireplaces burn wood as primary solid biomass, wood biomass from forest-based industry and processed wood-based fuel, for example, pellets. Apparently, all forms are climate-friendly.

Despite this, Europe has the highest proportion of PM concentrations attributable to household heating with solid fuels, just above biomass and coal. According to the International Institute of Applied System Analysis (IIASA) in Luxembourg, Austria, residential heating contributes up to 30% of PM2.5 and up to 50% of BC, providing only 3% of energy. Worst of all is that the latter is on the rise. Household stoves, boilers and other heating appliances, including chimneys, will soon become the most important source of black carbon. However, the situation differs in EU-28: in Poland, residential burning (RB), a so-called low-emission source, is responsible for more than 70% of PM and BC concentrations in the air during the heating season, where coal accounts for 50% and wood for 20%. In Ireland, 55% of RB uses coal, which is responsible for 90% of pollution. Meanwhile, this stands at 80% in Latvia and Croatia, but exclusively from wood. In the UK, 38% of primary PM2.5 emissions also come from RB. However, these low-emission sources affect local and regional-scale air quality, so may be considered as transboundary.

Working towards purification

That is why recognition must go to the Air Convention’s – the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution – working group on strategy and review, who’s last session in Geneva featured a thematic session on residential wood combustion and air pollution. The session demonstrated that immediate solutions to cut toxic emissions from incomplete combustion in residential heating are at hand. They include:

  • Fuel switching;
  • Using of more efficient heating technologies, e.g. certified fireplaces or pellet stoves;
  • Adding heater and wood stove exchangers; and
  • Introducing “no burn days” during pollution episodes.

Of equal importance are soft measures like awareness raising campaigns, eco-labelling of heating appliances and their proper inspection and maintenance, whilst administrative bans can also be effective. Wood stoves will be forbidden in Lombardy, Italy, from 2020, while coal is to be banned in Ireland, effective from Autumn 2018. This will also be reflected in Krakow, Poland, from 2019. Finally, useful guidance will be delivered next year from the Air Convention’s Task Force on Techno-Economic Issues, of which will develop a code of good practice for solid-fuel burning and small combustion installations, based on best available technology (BAT).

And in the future? Boilers which offer zero emission benefits, heating systems powered by solar panels and heat pumps, alongside taxation of RB to reflect the 45-year-old polluter pays principle, could significantly reduce air pollution and be a benefit to all across Europe.

EFCA needs only to refine its strategy for 2018-2022, focusing more on these two killers. The occasion will come very soon; the congress of the Italian Thermodynamic Association will be held in Pisa in September, whilst the symposium organised by the French Association for Preventing Air Pollution (APPA) will be held together with EFCA in November in Lille, France. This event will be devoted to personal micro-devices which measure the concentrations of UFP wherever we are. Let’s democratise our combat for air purification in Europe and hope that together we can succeed and eradicate our killers.

Andrzej Jagusiewicz
European Federation of Clean Air and Environmental Protection

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