LPG still has air quality role to play in Europe
Poor air quality is the single largest environmental health risk in the EU, with particulate matter (PM) alone responsible for more than 300,000 premature deaths in the 27 EU member states in 2019, according to the European Environment Agency. Car transport accounts for a significant proportion of air pollutant emissions, but this is largely NOx emissions in urban areas.
The problem of PM emissions comes from the use of more-polluting heating and industrial fuels, often in rural areas. According to Beth Reid, European LPG distributor UGI International's vice-president of Growth and Transformation, around 40 million homes in Europe are outside a natural gas grid which predominantly uses heating oil, coal and biomass for heating, while 40 percent of commercial buildings use the same fuels, and 27 percent of industrial facilities also.
The transportation, heating and industrial sectors all have to share the burden of air quality degradation, Reid said. And poor air quality is not a standalone issue outside of the climate change crisis. Maria Neira, the World Health Organisation's director of Public Health and the Environment, said that at least 75 percent of the causes of climate change are also responsible for air pollution. LPG's potential role in improving air quality in Europe has often been espoused by the industry given it has far lower PM, NOx and other pollutant emissions compared with other fossil fuels or solid biomass. It also benefits from being immediately readily available and affordable.
Bartosz Kwiatkowski, Polish LPG association POGP's director, said that in Poland the post-communist economic transformation radically reduced air pollution, with PM emissions from power generation 100 times lower today than they were in 1990. It also brought about an explosion in car usage, but the simultaneous surge in the popularity of autogas vehicles softened the blow from the transport sector. Autogas accounts for about 15 percent of Poland's total passenger cars, cutting CO2 emissions by around 1mn t/yr and PM emissions by up to 80percent, Kwiatkowski said.
Wiktor Warchalowski, chief executive and co-founder of air quality data provider, Airly, says that Poland still has serious air quality issues and, much like other countries in central and eastern Europe, these are often less to do with road transportation in urban areas and more related to the use of dirtier heating fuels in off-grid locations.
Around 60 percent of Polish households in off-grid areas use old coal boilers — another legacy of the country's communist past as well as its substantial domestic coal industry. Warchalowski said that the government's clean air programme has moved to replace these with a mix of technologies including natural gas, LPG and heat pumps since 2018, significantly improving the situation. LPG has a big role to play in helping to lower pollutant emissions as Europe transitions to net zero, he said.
Francois Wakenhut, the European Commission's head of the Clean Air Unit in the Directorate-General for the Environment, said that regulatory challenges for LPG remain, largely because it is a fossil fuel. She continued that more needs to be done to decarbonise the sector and scale up production of renewable gaseous fuels. Reid said that this warning is not falling on deaf ears, pointing to UGI International's investments across Europe to increase the production of renewable gases. However, supportive regulatory policies are critical in giving confidence to the sector, she said.
Panellists said that another threat to action on air quality comes from the Ukraine war. Wachalowski said that applications to replace coal boilers with gas ones dropped dramatically in March as consumers became worried about surging gas prices. However, the war's onset also supported autogas use owing to its lower comparative cost.