We asked Matthew what he thinks about the state of air pollution in the UK and what we can do about improving air quality.
Atmotube: Matthew, such a pleasure to talk with you today. Can you tell us about your business – BGI, and what brought you to investigate the air pollution problem?
Matthew Hunt: Well, my background within renewable and sustainable energy probably started 10 to 12 years ago. As air pollution gradually worsened, we are investing our energies to raising awareness within our communities here in the UK. I built my first biomass boiler and started planting 30 acres of various experimental species of biomass crops to burn, so we could be self-sustaining. Now we have the largest display of biomass energy crops in the UK, and possibly the biggest energy crop display in Europe. From here, we went on to distribute biomass boilers as a company with the interest of being self-sustaining. The RHI came along in England, which is a renewable heating incentive, which implies the government paid subsidy for every kilowatt that you burn of biomass. So, we used to sell boilers all around the country.
Our interest in legislation came about when we realised that people were burning waste wood through their biomass boilers from recycling centres. Well, that's really not a good idea for anybody to do because of the pollution. The heavy metals in the smoke are coming out of waste wood, and it's very high and can cause cancer and lung problems. So, we informed the government about what was happening in our industry. And it's been two years working with them and the Environmental Agency and DEFRA to come up with a policy to stop that from happening. BGI was at the forefront of this.
Atmotube: Were any actions taken from the government with your help?
Matthew Hunt: Yes, completely. There were lots of actions taken. For example, the UK government had what's called the BSL list, the biomass suppliers list where you could go and buy your fuel pellets, etc., from. Some suppliers didn't state it was waste wood coming from a mixture of sources, so it could have had paint or lead in it. This was very dangerous to burn near a school or on a farm. It would have terrible effects on the flora, fauna and our environment. So, we pointed out that this type of waste wood should not go through a biomass boiler. The government, after several rounds of consultations with different specialists, not only set the list of what people can burn but actually imposed a fine of £40,000. So, we try to stop contaminated wood burning in biomass boilers that cause massive problems with air pollution and our climate.
Atmotube: Can you briefly explain what exactly is prohibited to burn in the boiler to prevent air pollution?
Matthew: Any waste wood, i.e., wood that has been tampered with, i.e., has paint, varnishes and chemicals within them. Even tree roots and branches that have been grown on a roadside, which has picked up all the heavy metals and NO2 from car exhausts, are also considered to be a waste and should not be burned.
Atmotube: How do you describe the policy for biomass boilers?
Matthew: That's another topic of conversation. As with a car, a biomass boiler should be tested every year to see what the emissions are like. Things start fading in biomass boilers that burn wood, just like in a car, and they should have an annual check. If they don't, they have a manufacturer check when the product is being sold and then don't need another one for the rest of their life. And the government scheme is 20 years long. So that boiler doesn't need to have a check to make sure it's not polluting for 20 years. It's an incredible state of affairs in the UK, resulting in the government paying us or paying the public or paying farmers to pollute the air. It's just crazy!
Atmotube: Do you think there are particular regions in the UK that have severe problems with air pollution?
Matthew: It's not just confined to the major cities, like London, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool. It's small little towns, like Chesham and Bucks. There's air pollution in every town where there are combustion and engines running. You've also got air pollution from industrial sites and, believe it or not, a lot of pollution from agriculture and farming. So again, there are many different kinds of air pollution, whether or not you live in an urban area or rural countryside area. If you look somewhere, say up North, and you've got a lot of people that still use a lot of coal in their fires or woodburning stoves, that is actually worse than some of the cities where people live in apartments. Obviously, one-third of the British county capitals are in a climate change emergency now because of the air pollution.
There are different types of pollution in different areas in the UK. I don't think anybody in the UK isn't affected by air pollution in some form or another.
Atmotube: So, you mentioned that rural areas in your case actually face this severe problem because of woodburning. So, what about your area?
Matthew: I live above Chesham. I live in the countryside in a place called the Chilterns, which is very near Chesham, but I live in a real rural area.
My area, if you want to talk specifically about where I live, we have brickworks/kilns where they make bricks out of clay. This area obviously is a very clay-rich area, and they use biomass to make the brick from the clay. And you can see that creates pollution. The villagers often burn wood. So, you can smell it when the villagers burn wood and use biomass to heat their homes.
Agriculture again, we have some slurry pits and lots of ammonia coming from them. When the villagers plow or spray chemicals in the field, it's another form of air pollution.
Atmotube: What about air quality monitoring stations? Do you have air quality monitoring stations in your place?
Matthew: The government had some scientific equipment in Watford, which is quite a distance from us, but that's the closest one to us. So, the monitoring station in Watford must be about 25 miles away, as the crow flies, so it's a good 45 minutes away by road. So, no, that's the only official government one in our area. There is no other, so we have been monitoring the air where I live with different monitors for a long time, measuring the emission from boilers and renewable energy plants. We have been monitoring for years to understand how they pollute and why they pollute.
Atmotube: Usually, all the actions taken by the government are aimed at tackling air pollution in big cities, for example, London. So, what do you think about whether there is a disparity in measures against air pollution in London compared to rural areas?
Matthew: I think the direct question is, you have got to concentrate on where the most polluted places are first, like London or Manchester. They both have air pollution zones. So, you can't drive diesel cars, I think from 2021 or 2022, into central London. You mostly drive into central London or central Manchester, and you have to pay a ‘congestion charge’. So, that's where you concentrate first, the sectors where the most pollution is and the highest density of population. These polluted cities have also set up Clean Air Zones (CAZ), which have many restrictions.
Local governments have done a lot of work. They are looking at cheaper air monitors to deploy in smaller towns, like mine, Chesham, and looking at the quality of air. There's a lot of enquiries going out for them at the moment and have been for the last two years, so they are acting and are clearly enforcing the local government and the local councils, like town councils and county council to engage because you know two-thirds of our towns/cities are in climate emergency up and down the country.
So locally, there's a lot of things going on that we are active with. For example, don't idle your car outside a school, you coach your children to walk or cycle to school and so on. Another point is to encourage taxi drivers to go electric and to encourage town councils to have more electric points so people can drive electric cars. There are currently not enough charging points. Also, the range of an electric car will not get me to my destination if I have to travel to Manchester from my house. It takes me four and a half hours. If I did that in an electric car, I would have to stop twice, maybe three times, on a return journey and wait up to 45 minutes while the car recharges if I can get to a charging point that isn't being used. It’s just the infrastructure in the UK. If they want to tackle air pollution, they've got to attack the car industry first, but they must have the infrastructure there for us to be able to drive electric cars. If that's not there, then nobody is going to drive them.
Atmotube: Okay. So, when do you think the infrastructure will be ready? Within 10 to 15 years?
Matthew: It's 2035 where the UK moves to end sales of all non-electric cars. So the UK is not selling anything except electric cars from 2035. So, I guess this is the time.
Atmotube: The Southeast region of the UK supposedly has the worst air pollution. In your opinion, what are the particular reasons for this?
Matthew: I think that's quite a generalisation of the Southeast, including London in that. It's quite a diverse area. It could be attributed to the fact that it's slightly wealthier than the rest of the UK. You probably find if there is a family of four and with 18- and 17-year-olds in the family. They would all have a car, so there would be four cars where further up North you probably wouldn't find that, as public transport is also more efficient. So, there would be fewer cars per family because of income in that house. Again, that's a very big generalisation, but that could be one of the reasons.
On top of that, I think there are a lot more people in the Southeast as well. It is a condensed population with a bit more wealth and a bit more ability to buy cars and so on and so forth. So, I hope that answers the question. I think the pockets of the North are higher if you took Manchester and a portion of the Southeast. Manchester would have higher pollution levels than some areas in the Southeast. It's a very hard thing to say because there could be a billion reasons behind it. I think probably the density of population and wealth are some of the factors.
The other reason is the air pollution in the UK isn't always our fault. Pollution can be coming from Europe across the channel, which is only 22 miles away, and what they're doing. If we have a westerly wind from Europe, then the UK is going to take their air pollution.
Atmotube: So, your hypothesis is air pollution is also connected to this social structure of the country.
Matthew: Well, I think it can be. I think also in London. You'll often find the poorer places in London have the highest air pollution because they have the older cars. The diesel cars are cheaper, so if you're struggling with an income and you need a car, you're going to buy a cheap car, which tends to be a diesel car about 10 or 15 years old. So obviously, that's going to pollute more than a modern-day car.
I can only put it down to that and heating in your home. I mean if you are struggling for heat and you've got a fireplace, you're going to burn wood. So, poverty's a big thing in the UK where people can't even afford to turn on the gas. So, they might seek other options, like coal and wood in these areas. So, I think it's a very complex argument, and I don't think anybody has a complete answer. Take Bristol, for example. They burn a lot of wood, and many woodburning stores have opened in the last 10 years.
Atmotube: Okay. Thank you. It's a very interesting point. Our last question is, What's your advice on how we can personally contribute to the reduction of air pollution?
Matthew: I think when we go back to work, I think of cycling to work. Obviously, the ability to be able to afford electric cars is only for the privileged at the moment. So, we asked manufacturers and governments to come up with subsidies so we can afford to have an electric car and to be able to charge it where and when we need. So again, it's got to be government-led. The government has already banned the use of coal, by the way. I think that's next year.
As an individual, don't burn wet wood if you live in the countryside. Don't have a bonfire, recycle properly and then obviously lobby the local council/government. The best thing you can do as an individual is to lobby, get behind a decent core group in your local area, and lobby, for example, school buses to come back. So, there's one bus picking up all the children instead of 12 taxis driving around the area picking up kids. It's about coordination, but it's about pressuring the local government to do more. Don't have cars idling in town. Have electric modern buses, not diesel. I'm sure that local governments can do that.
So again, most people have got common sense, so they know if they've got a fire that they're polluting. They know if they've got a diesel car they're polluting, but they might not have the ability to afford anything else. I think the best way personally is to lobby local governments for a bigger change, and I think that's the best thing that we can do.
Atmotube: It was great to talk with you, Matthew. Thank you!
Matthew: My pleasure. Thanks for having me for this interview.