Wood smoke adds billions to health bill, says report

Ben Cubby
smh.com.au

THE smoky haze from wood fires is Sydney’s biggest source of air pollution in winter, and wood smoke will add $8 billion to the health budget by 2030, says an independent report commissioned by the state government and kept secret for six months.

A tax on wood fuel … suggested by an AECOM report. Photo: Andrew Sheargold

One of the options put forward by the report, produced by the environmental consultancy AECOM, is a tax on wood fuel that which would keep the cost of burning wood rising in line with the federal government’s carbon price.

Other options include tighter regulation in new development areas, a tax on wood-burning heaters, or a ban on the heaters phased in over several years.

With electricity prices expected to rise up to 40 per cent by 2014 due to new network infrastructure and the carbon price, the report said wood heaters would become cheaper by comparison.

”Discretionary control measures may need to be considered to manage the undesirable outcomes, for example, a tax on wood fuel,” the report said.

The Office of Environment and Heritage, which commissioned the study, said it was yet to make a recommendation to the government.

The estimated $8 billion in avoidable health costs resulting from wood smoke was calculated using methods developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency and United Nations-sponsored research to measure the impacts of vehicle pollution.

The state’s 365,000 wood heaters release a range of very small particles, sometimes visible as a smoky haze in the air, that aggravate many medical conditions.

People with heart disease, lung disease, inflammation of the lungs, bronchitis or asthma are particularly affected. A study in 2010 by the Environment Department found wood smoke pollutants could also affect rates of cancer, birth defects and nervous system disorders.

The NSW Greens, who obtained the report under freedom-of-information laws, said the government should act quickly to minimise smoke.

”The NSW government now knows the heavy price tag of doing nothing on wood smoke pollution,” the Greens MP Cate Faehrmann said.

”Taking action now will literally shave millions off the NSW health budget for years into the future. The government now has a range of options to address the problem that are costed and ready to go. At the very least we need a freeze on new installations until new tougher standards are in place.”

The government said a survey had been sent to all councils at the end of last week, seeking input on new wood smoke control measures, but no decisions had been reached yet.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Environment and Heritage said the report was a starting point for discussions with councils.

”The findings of this economic assessment are being used as an analytical tool to help develop and evaluate suitable wood smoke control options to supplement or replace existing strategies in different areas in NSW …” she said. ”In some areas of NSW wood heaters are a viable and cost-effective source of heating, especially in colder regional areas.”

Rural areas have more wood heaters and people living there are often more exposed to smoke haze, the report said.

In Armidale wood heaters can account for more than 85 per cent of airborne particle pollution in winter. In Sydney the proportion of people using wood to heat their homes is very small, yet it accounts for between 48 per cent and 60 per cent of small particle pollution in winter.

About 10,300 tonnes of invisible fine particles was released into the atmosphere from the state’s wood heaters in 2008.

The concept of a tax on wood fuel was canvassed in the AECOM report as one of the options at the government’s disposal.

”Despite their greenhouse gas emissions, wood and biomass fuels are unlikely to be taxed [under the federal government's carbon price], and due to the rise in other energy sources, may have a greater cost advantage. This would create a perverse incentive for households to choose (or retain) wood heaters as the preferred heating type.”