Wood-fired stoves in the news

16 Feb 2023

You may have heard news reports indicating that the use of wood-burning stoves has a severely negative impact on the environment, specifically air quality. In particular, discussions have been focused on emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) contained within wood smoke, which is contributing to pollutants known to damage human health. Here, we look at those claims and the evidence behind them, to help members form their own balanced opinions.                        

The Government confirms that domestic burning in England will not be banned any time soon; this is a key signal that wood fuel remains a viable choice, especially as many households rely on wood fuel for a substantial proportion of their heating.    

On reviewing the evidence behind claims being made in recent news reports, it is clear the science is at an early stage and that significant assumptions are being made, some of which have already had to be revised substantially. For example, the Government has updated the evidence that has been used in the recent news reports. It appears previously stated data, on the annual estimations for small particle pollution in the UK derived from wood burners, has now been revised down from 38 per cent to 17 per cent. The reasons behind the revision were due to exaggerated usage calculations and assumptions that all multi-fuel stoves will be fuelled with coal and wood together. It would not be a surprise to see further downward revisions as methodologies improve and studies increase their reach. Unfortunately, some news reports still use the unrevised figures.

Another point to consider is that recent reports have compared the domestic use of wood fuel (which is renewable) unfavourably with power generated from non-renewable sources, such as gas, oil and coal, without including all of the other negative environmental impacts related to this form of generation. We know we cannot continue burning coal, oil, and gas if we are going to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, and that swift transition to 100 per cent renewable energy cannot come soon enough. As long as the air quality impacts of wood fuel can be managed appropriately, based on sound evidence, then wood fuel should be part of that renewable fuel future.

We will also continue to highlight the many positive by-products of well-managed wood fuel.  Wood fuel is a key product in maintaining and bringing neglected woodlands into management. It is also a key contributor to rural economies, as it is a vital source of income for small woodland contractors and coppice workers. Firewood is easy to store and use, it does not require specialist processing, and it is a renewable resource when harvested sustainably.

Although we don’t have reliable data for indoor emissions, there are several things responsible users can do to keep emissions to a minimum indoors.

  • have a working carbon monoxide alarm;
  • have chimneys swept annually;
  • service stoves;
  • keep stored fuel dry; and
  • only burn what the stove is designed to be fuelled with.

Building regulations also ensure that rooms are appropriately ventilated and chimneys sighted clear of obstruction to invite a draw. Responsible users will ensure they maximise heat output and efficiency to reduce smoke, keeping the fire at 200oC to avoid creosote; and limiting ingress of smoke into the room by slowly opening the stove door with the dampeners wide open and the room ventilated to help reduce drawback.  

Firewood in the UK, as regulated by the Government and wood fuel quality certification, remains a key source of renewable fuel. As we find ways to help our members in all nations of the UK, the Small Woods Ready to Burn Wood Fuel Group in England has been launched, aimed to be an environmentally responsible choice when choosing fuels for immediate use in wood burning stoves and thus reducing impacts on air quality. Open to all Small Woods members, the group aims to ensure only dry logs are burnt, minimising emissions. We would also recommend burning in a “Cleaner Choice” appliance so that these impacts can be further reduced.

Users of wood fuel stoves will not want to use them if it is definitively proven that they are substantially affecting the health of those around them. However, the evidence needs to be more robust before concluding a stove ban would be appropriate for air quality improvements in the UK.  While those in air quality control zones will already know the new constraints they have to work within, for the majority it is a case of being reassured that the Government still supports responsible use of correctly dried and certified wood fuel in appropriate appliances.

We will continue to engage in the debate and ensure that any future advice is only given once more reliable science has been produced. At the same time, we will be urging the Government to keep in mind the many positives of an efficient and well-regulated wood fuel sector to the future resilience of our woodlands.