Wood burning fireplaces – a hot campaign issue

An unusual campaign is emerging in London over adverts for wood burning stoves. The context is the Mayor of London’s drive against air pollution, with the extension of the ULEZ across the whole of Greater London.

ULEZ = Ultra-Low Emission Zone. The driver of any vehicle which does not meet the ultra-low emission standards has to pay £12.50 per day to drive through the zone. Nationwide about 10% of all vehicles do not meet the standard. In principle, Lib Dems in London support the measures to reduce air pollution although we have many concerns about the implementation – inadequate scrappage schemes and some rather odd boundaries around the edges.

Apparently the use of wood burning fireplaces has increased by 124% between 2011 and 2021 – they are pretty fashionable, after all. I imagine many people who installed such fireplaces were under the misapprehension that they were a green alternative to gas or electricity. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It seems that the main source of PM2.5 (which is recognised as the most harmful of all air pollutants) is domestic wood burning fireplaces.

Hina Bokhari, Member of the London Assembly, has been working on this issue alongside the campaign group Mums for Lungs. She is calling for a public awareness campaign on the dangers of wood burning, and a ban on adverts on the Tube network, like the one in the photo.

She says:

Now is a chance for the Mayor of London to show he is consistent with his messaging and promises. The Mayor has previously banned advertising on the TfL network for junk food due to its risk to human health, there is no reason he shouldn’t do the same for wood-burning heaters and stoves.

This is especially the case as Sadiq Khan has sought to make air pollution such a key issue of his term in office.

We need a public awareness campaign about the dangers of woodburning stoves and fireplaces in our homes, not extra advertising.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Horrible things. Incineration of anything always produces particles, even at ultra-high (industrial) temperatures, which these do not reach. And when weather conditions push the smoke down to street level, really unpleasant to walk through (or live near to). So absolutely, need education on them everywhere.

  • Jenny Barnes 18th Jan '24 - 5:19pm

    There has indeed been a lot of negative press about wood burning stoves. However, burning well seasoned wood in modern design stoves emits a very small proportion of the PM2.5. The biggest culprit is outdoor burning, bonfires, followed by open indoor fires. road transport and industrial emissions.

  • If only ‘well-seasoned wood’ was all people shoved into them, it might help.
    My local council’s newsletter, by chance, has just informed me that Jan 24 is Clean Air Night:
    They claim ‘Even homes with the newest “ecodesign” wood burners are three times more polluted than homes without’.
    And: ‘Domestic burning, which includes wood and a small proportion of coal and ‘smokeless fuels’, is the single biggest source of harmful small particle air pollution in the UK, making up 27% of PM2.5 emissions’ (source = Defra).

    I would gently point out that ‘there are worse culprits’ isn’t a great endorsement.

  • Tristan Ward 18th Jan '24 - 9:01pm

    I do wish our party would not jump on to banning people’s pleasures with so much gusto and excitement.

    There may well be a case for banning woodburning stoves, but banning things ought to be something Liberals don’t like doing much. Besides, from a net zero point of view, burning wood – a renewable resource if you do it right – is far better than burning coal, oil or gas.

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Jan '24 - 9:28pm

    Writing as a rural resident with a woodburning stove (supplementary to electric storage heaters).

    The OP refers to woodburning fireplaces – does that mean open fires or stoves or both?

    There are standards for new woodburning stoves – see e.g. https://24housing.co.uk/wood-burning-stoves-the-new-rules-you-need-to-know/

    Jenny is right about using well-seasoned wood and a modern stove much less polluting than new wood and an inefficient stove,

    But what seems particularly concerning to me about woodburning heating in a city is – where does the wood come from? Most or all of it will have to be brought in to the city – there won’t be much seasoned wood available locally. An additional environmental burden. That’s where I question Tristan’s comment.

    Rural residents may have access to a ready local supply of seasoned wood. And they won’t be using mains gas for heating.

  • There are two, albeit related, issues here, the outdoor air quality which my understanding is the main thrust of the ULEZ, the second is the indoor air quality, which is the focus of the scientific paper that the claim made by the website Cassie links to.

    What I am finding a little frustrating and irritating is the use of percentages, with the actual numbers deeply buried, which suggests statements like “ three times more polluted than homes without” is more about demonisation than rational debate and decision making.

  • Peter Wrigley 19th Jan '24 - 7:46am

    I am plagued by smoke from barbecues, (and the stench from the stuff used to light them). Where do they fit in?

  • I thought that these issues had been addressed at the time when domestic coal burning fires were recognised as a major health risk. This was of course a major problem in urban areas.
    We need to have clear standards for pollution which should then be enforced.

  • Jenny Barnes 19th Jan '24 - 2:43pm

    “I would gently point out that ‘there are worse culprits’” makes it probably better to go for the worse culprits first – road transport, open fires, bonfires, bbqs produce far more PM2.5 than modern wood burning stoves burning well seasoned wood.
    And if we are to transition away from fossil fuels, gas is a fossil fuel, and the electricity needed for heatpumps is presently (14:40 19/jan) being generated by just under 50% gas and 2% coal, 1% wood from canadian forests in Drax.

  • The sale of coal for burning in domestic appliances ended, by law, in May 2021. As did the sale of wet wood. All stoves for sale should now be “ECO design” for reduced emissions. Existing Local authority urban “smokeless zone” regulations could be adapted to phase out all those cheap & cheerful cast iron stoves sold until recently. We don’t need new laws. LEZ car limits are complicated. A Euro 4 petrol car emits 0.08g/km of PMs and can enter. A Euro 4 diesel would only emit a third of this at 0.025 g/km of PMs but can’t enter (Rightly). It’s not easy to put facts into headlines.

  • >bonfires, bbqs produce far more PM2.5 than modern wood burning stoves
    Individually, sure. But how many bonfires or barbecues do town/city households have per year? Against the cumulative effect of using stoves every day throughout the winter months?
    As for road transport… the UK government reported in 2022 that: ‘Wood burning in homes produces more small particle pollution than all road traffic in the UK’.
    Have all the 2022 stoves been replaced since with ‘modern ones’? I doubt it.

    And as I said, weather conditions often force the plume down into the street, as unpleasant – and harmful for anyone with asthma etc – as any bonfire.

    There is nothing to say anyone has to go for just one culprit at a time!

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Jan '24 - 8:38am

    > Have all the 2022 stoves been replaced since with ‘modern ones’? I doubt it.

    My understanding is there is no obligation to replace an existing stove.

    Good site for info https://www.hetas.co.uk

  • What’s the official position on the biomass power station at Drax ?

  • No one is calling for ‘new laws’. Or ‘banning people’s pleasures’.
    To remind people of the original article:
    “Hina Bokhari, Member of the London Assembly… is calling for a public awareness campaign on the dangers of wood burning, and a ban on adverts on the Tube.”
    Is all.

  • > ‘Wood burning in homes produces more small particle pollution than all road traffic in the UK’.
    The devil is in the detail, it’s an interesting report ( https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/emissions-of-air-pollutants/emissions-of-air-pollutants-in-the-uk-summary )

    The report notes a large part of the decrease in vehicle emissions is due to exhaust filtering, something not done on domestic heating systems.

  • Well said Mary – very few wood burning stoves are of the latest type, and much wood sold in garages and the like is damp. These things increase asthma and dementia.

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Jan '24 - 9:19am

    @Tim Leunig
    “very few wood burning stoves are of the latest type”
    Well of course that would be the case – people are not going to replace reasonably recent woodburning stoves overnight if the old stove is properly maintained and is working well. Replacing a decent woodburning stove isn’t cheap (albeit a lot cheaper and less disruptive than installing a heat pump.

    “and much wood sold in garages and the like is damp”
    Is there a case for registering suppliers of wood for stoves? Maybe but difficult to police.

    Dementia – I found a study https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0198283
    This is from Scandinavia not UK

    The emission of PM2.5 from local residential wood burning was associated with dementia incidence with a hazard ratio of 1.55 for a 1 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 (95% Confidence Interval (CI): 1.00–2.41, p-value 0.05). Study participants with an address in an area with the highest quartile of PM2.5 from residential wood burning and who also had a wood-burning stove were more likely to develop dementia than those in the lower three quartiles without a wood-burning stove with hazard ratios of 1.74 (CI: 1.10–2.75, p-value 0.018). Particulate matter from traffic exhaust seemed to be associated with dementia incidence with hazard ratios of 1.66, (CI: 1.16–2.39), p-value 0.006, and 1.41 (CI: 0.97–2.23), p-value 0.07, in the third and fourth quartiles, respectively.

    If the associations we observed are causal, then air pollution from residential wood burning, and air pollution from traffic, might be independent important risk factors for dementia.”

  • @ Nonconformistradical…. “air pollution from residential wood burning, and air pollution from traffic, might be independent important risk factors for dementia.”

    Have you found any studies relating to the impact of using imported wood pellets from the Americas for biomass burning at Drax Power Station, Noncon, and in your opinion would you expect it to have any such impact ?

  • Drax…

    “ During 2022, Drax power station in Yorkshire burned 6.4 million tonnes of pellets made from around 12.86 million tonnes of freshly cut (‘green’) wood. This was the equivalent of 115% of the UK’s entire wood production, to meet just 0.95% of the country’s recent final energy demand.” [source: https://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/axedrax-campaign/#:~:text=During%202022%2C%20Drax%20power%20station,(%27green%27)%20wood. ]

    It would seem clearcut harvesting of plantation conifers generate roughly 80-105 tons of timber per acre, with an average of 87 tons per acre.
    [source: https://www.forest2market.com/blog/how-many-tons-of-wood-are-on-an-acre-of-land ]
    So that’s 147,816 acres of conifer plantation required pa annum, or 230 sq. miles (roughly an area with sides of 15 miles.
    Assuming a normal growth cycle, trees are cut after 40 years, so Drax will require a minimum of 40×230 sq.miles of plantation, circa 9,200 sq miles. East Anglia is 4,850 sq miles…

  • @ Roland Thanks for all that detailed and fascinating information, Roland.

    It’s also interesting to note that the government pays out £2.1m subsidy per day to the owners of Drax for burning all that imported biomass. (Guardian, 18 January, 2023). Be interesting to know which Energy Minister introduced that.

    For Lib Dems unfamiliar with this bit of Yorkshire, Drax can be seen to the East of the A1 and the main East Coast railway line a few minutes before arrival in York.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Jan '24 - 8:07am

    @David Raw
    Re Drax – importing wood pellets from oversseas reinforces on a large scale my point about people using wood-burning stoves in cities where the wood has to be brought in from elsewhere.

  • Peter Davies 24th Jan '24 - 1:14pm

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