Wood burning stoves are one of the oldest and most characterful ways to heat a home, filling an estimated 1.5 million UK homes – a number that is growing every year. With so much political upheaval and changes in environmental policy over recent months and years, it has been difficult to keep track of exactly what is and isn’t allowed now.
We want to help clear up the confusion and explain exactly what limitations and bans are in place for wood-burning stoves, and what it means for you.
Are wood-burning stoves environmentally friendly?
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.
So if wood is carbon neutral then why are people banning them?
There are two basic problems with wood-burning stoves.
Firstly, “carbon neutral” is a term that a lot of people have an issue with. If you were to collect the wood for the stove by hand and transport it to the stove yourself, it might be considered as having a net-zero impact. However, in reality, you’re much more likely to be buying up machine produced logs, transported across distances by haulage vehicles, creating a significant carbon footprint. There’s also the matter of deforestation; if we weren’t cutting down these trees to burn, would we be cutting them down at all? Or would they have otherwise gone on to absorb more carbon dioxide and ultimately help reduce pollution further? If so, then harvesting them for heating our homes has a bigger, longer-term impact that we might have originally considered.
The other problem is that, just because it may not have the same CO2 emissions as gas or coal etc, wood-burning is still exceptionally bad for air quality. A recent study by The British Heart Foundation (BHF) estimated that 11,000 deaths per year are caused by air pollution, but that this number is set to rise.
What is the government going about wood-burning stoves? Are they really being banned?
At the moment, wood stoves are not being banned. The Clean Air Strategy, as updated in 2019, clearly states that they have no plans to ban wood stoves entirely.
While pollutants often caused by wood-burning is being targetted, the government is tackling this by looking at fuel sources and limiting availability to the most efficient stoves. The Clear Air Strategy has promised that ‘only the cleanest stoves are available for sale by 2022’. This won’t affect the kinds of wood burners you can run, but may mean that you can only buy certain stoves for a couple more years, before they’re phased out.
What about Smoke Controlled Areas?
An increasing number of places in the UK are designated Smoke Controlled Areas. Despite what many people think, you can still use wood-burning apparatus in these areas, but it is more controlled. Unlike in rural areas, where you can pick up wood from anywhere and burn it in your fireplace, in Smoke Controlled Areas you can only burn certain fuels. The full list of approved fuels can be found here.
Alternatively, you can use ‘exempt appliances’, for example, burners or stoves. This is a little more complicated since the appliances that are exempt vary by country. If you want to check whether your wood-burning stove is permitted in your country, check the DEFRA website here.
At the moment, the restrictions for Smoke Controlled Areas are very rarely enforced. Theoretically, you can be fined up to £1000, but in reality, local councils rarely have the resources to investigate and enforce that. We might start to see that changing soon though, as more and more focus is being placed on environmental protection and concerns regarding air quality are on the rise.