Paul's Column: one way we can tackle poor air quality

24 October 2017

When we moved from North Shields to the west side of Newcastle in 1975 we encountered a new phenomenon - the washing on the line being occasionally stained with discharge from the steel works at Consett.  As kids we were familiar with soot from the burning of coal, but this red dust was a new form of pollution to us - although admittedly it only occurred under certain atmospheric and wind conditions.

The closure of Consett in 1980, the phasing out of coal fires in homes and the demise of heavy industry more generally hasn’t, alas, ended the problem of air pollution in our region.  For instance we have high toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations around roads in the North East with Tyneside and urban Teesside being of particular concern. 

Nationally the picture is also bleak with the UK having one of the worst records of pollution death of any country in Europe with around 40,000 deaths per year being attributed to toxic air and man-made chemicals. Hardest hit are people with a lung condition, children and the elderly.

In recent months London has been plagued with poor air quality where one of the most dangerous toxic particles is known as PM2.5.  While half of these toxic particles are from sources outside the city the main sources of PM2.5 emissions within London are from tyre and brake wear, construction site activity and from the burning of wood.  Installing a wood-burning stove has become a trendy thing to do!

There are around 32 million motor vehicles in the UK of which a significant proportion is heavy goods vehicles (HGVs).  All these vehicles experience wear and tear on their brakes resulting in the release of PM2.5 micro particles of rubber into the atmosphere.

There is no single or easy answer to this problem, rather many small steps need to be taken.  For instance a shift to constructing high-rise buildings in timber would see a lighter material, wood, replacing heavier materials, steel and concrete, with a resulting 80% reduction in HGVs to construction sites.

The world’s largest (not tallest) wooden building was recently completed this year in Hackney, London designed by the architects Waugh and Thistleton. The ten-storey, 121-unit development is made entirely of wood, from the external, party and core walls, through to the floors and stairs, weighing only a fifth of a concrete building of this size. This project required 2,000 tons of timber and had it been built in concrete, it would have required 12,000 tons of it. This translates into 750 deliveries into the city, whereas for the Hackney building fewer than 100 trucks were enough.  So not so many PM2.5s and less diesel fumes emitted.

The world’s tallest wooden building can be found in Vancouver - an 18-storey prefabricated tower block which took less than 70 days to build and was finished four months earlier than expected.  However Vienna is set to take the title soon with the 24-storey HoHo building currently under construction.  Staggeringly an 80-storey wooden skyscraper, the Oakwood Tower, has been proposed as an extension to the Barbican housing estate – second only to the Shard in height on the London skyline. 

This extraordinary leap upwards is possible due to the arrival of Cross Laminated Timber. CLT has the structural strength of steel and concrete while being 70% lighter. Unlike regular wood, it can be used structurally in very large and tall buildings and unlike concrete and steel – whose manufacture is responsible for 11% of global CO2 emissions – CLT doesn’t create carbon but sequesters it. The more we can make things out of wood, referred to at an EU level as ‘harvested wood products’, then the more carbon will be sequestrated. Therefore the increase in use of CLT when building high-rise buildings is an essential element of our growing sustainable bio-economy and will help tackle the huge issues we are facing regarding climate change.

There is a strong case for the UK leading the way in building in wood and, with it, the fight against climate change.  There are numerous benefits from it and now is a good time to recognise that building more in wood can also improve the air we breathe.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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