Are Wood Burners Bad for the Environment?

We’re living in a very different world than we were only 15 or 20 years ago. The general public has become a lot more aware of environmental concerns and carbon footprints, and we have seen an increase in trends associated with a sustainable and ecological way of life. Wood burning stoves have captured the interest of many homeowners; the combination of cheap heating and a cosy focal point within the property is an appealing idea. As a result, there are currently an estimated 1.5 million households in the UK with a wood burning stove, with around 200,000 more stoves being sold every year.

Many people believe a wood burning stove to be a significant step towards lowering their environmental impact, relying on a sustainable resource to heat their properties rather than purchasing energy from the central grid – much of which is generated by the burning of carbon-heavy fossil fuels. But how accurate is this idea? Are wood burners actually good for the environment?

Wood Burning Stoves: Carbon Neutral

Despite the fact that it gives off so much carbon dioxide, wood is a carbon-neutral energy source – it may seem counter-intuitive but in fact the logic is pretty simple. Through its life-cycle the tree will absorb a significant amount of carbon dioxide, and when the wood is burned the absorbed carbon is released back into the atmosphere. This amount of absorbed CO2 during the lifetime of the tree is balanced by the overall amount of CO2 released when the wood is burned. Therefore, the carbon dioxide actually added to the atmosphere is effectively zero.

In fact, based on this concept the government offers subsidies for some domestic wood burners. Though stoves are not included, wood-burning hot water boilers can qualify for the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme promoting sustainable power and providing quarterly cash repayments to cover the installation costs.

So if wood is carbon neutral then why are people banning them?

Wood Burning Stove Emissions

UK air quality has reached a crisis point, with towns and cities across the UK regularly failing to meet international standards. It’s a serious problem – the number of deaths attributed to outdoor pollution each year is in the tens of thousands. A joint study by Greenpeace and The Guardian last year revealed that nearly 50,000 children across England and Wales are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. The increased popularity of wood burners is making the problem worse – according to King’s College London, wood-burning in London accounts for up to 31% of the city’s particulate pollution – an increase of 10%.

This is particularly concerning to air quality specialists owing to the content of the emissions given off by burning wood. Specs of soot 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair are one of the most harmful kinds of air pollution, entering the body through the lungs and exacerbating heart and respiratory conditions. It’s called PM2.5 (doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but what can you do) and it has the potential to be hugely dangerous.

The Clean Air Act, the Clean Air Strategy, and Smoke Control Areas

There have been several Clean Air Acts since it’s first instigation in 1956. Back then it was implemented in response to the Great Smog of London in 1952, in which coinciding weather conditions collected airborne pollutants arising from the use of coal to form a thick layer of smog over the city. According to medical reports, at least 4,000 people died as a direct result of the smog and 100,000 more were taken ill by the effect on the respiratory tract. I’m not just mentioning that to scare all my fellow Londoners and fill everyone with fear, I’m mentioning it to make the point that air pollution is a big problem and it’s happening now – not at some indeterminate point in the future, but now.

Among other things, the Clean Air Acts created smoke control areas across the UK. In these specified locations you cannot emit smoke from a chimney unless you’re burning an authorised fuel or using an ‘exempt appliance’. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has made the argument recently that this doesn’t go far enough, calling for an amendment to the current Clean Air Act. If Khan gets his way then wood-burning stoves would be banned completely for urban areas with poor air quality. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has also committed itself to the publication of a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy, which is to come into effect this year. The Clean Air Strategy will cover 5 major pollutants, one of which is fine particles – the PM2.5 we mentioned earlier. Watch this space – we’ll definitely want to go through that particular document when it comes out and report back to our readers.

It seems that whatever your opinion on the effect of wood burning on the environment, the trend of installing them in city centre residences and urban dwellings may well be coming to a close.


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