Why the war on wood burners?

The government seems to be banning things first and working out the justifications later.

Rob Lyons


Boris Johnson’s government seems to be banning things first and looking for justifications later. Following on from its nonsensical plan to phase out diesel and petrol cars, it confirmed on Friday that it also wants to ban the sale of coal and ‘wet’ wood for use in domestic stoves and fires in England.

The press office at the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) declares that the government is taking ‘bold action to cut pollution from household burning’. It claims that wood-burning stoves and coal fires are ‘the single largest source of the pollutant PM2.5’ – that is, airborne ‘particulate matter’ with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres. For comparison, that’s tiny stuff that is about three per cent of the diameter of a human hair.

DEFRA says that domestic burning emits ‘twice the contribution of industry and three times the contribution of road transport’, adding that ‘these measures will help to tackle a form of pollution that penetrates deep into our hearts, lungs, and blood, and has been identified by the World Health Organisation as the most harmful air pollutant for human health’.

The new rules mean that the sale of traditional coal and wood that has not been dried will be banned. Bags of coal and smaller bags of ‘wet wood’ will be phased out by February 2021, with sales of loose coal direct to customers prohibited by 2023. Homeowners will be told to burn dry wood or smokeless fuel instead – both of which are far more expensive. Alternative fuels will only be permitted if they have a very low sulphur content and only emit a small amount of smoke.

While a ban on these ‘dirty fuels’ might sound like a positive thing, there are major problems with this policy.

First, the risk posed by air pollution is far less clear than campaigners would have us believe. There are recurring claims that tens of thousands of people die each year in the UK from air pollution. The best guess is that the risk of dying increases by six per cent per year for every 10 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic metre you’re exposed to. But it really is an educated guess. The estimate hides enormous uncertainty. For example, the studies don’t measure individual exposure, but are based on snapshots of levels in different areas. So the risks of PM2.5 could be much higher or lower, and they could be greatly influenced by confounding factors. Are people who are exposed to more pollution also more likely to be poor, for example?

Second, the UK’s air quality hasn’t been this good for centuries. The decline of industry, the long-term switch to gas, improvements in car-exhaust emissions and more have meant a steady decline in pollution. DEFRA’s statistical release on UK air quality, published in 2019, suggests that stoves and open fires have had some impact on air quality, but it’s not enormous. Yes, there are bumps in pollution levels in the morning and especially in the evening, as those stoves and fires are lit, but the difference between mid-afternoon and mid-evening is not huge. The combined effect of other forms of pollution is clearly more important.

Why the war on wood burners?

The experience of the Great Smog in London in 1952 is testament to the fact that burning coal in large, dense urban areas can be a problem. As a result, it is banned in many cities in the UK. Extending that ban to wet logs might make some sense, too. But to ban the sale of these fuels completely, in a manner that will affect everyone in England – even in the majority of places where air quality is not a problem – is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

For some people, burning coal and wood is a necessity, as they are not connected to the gas network and heating their homes with electric heaters is too expensive. But even where a stove or fire is not essential, it is still a great pleasure for millions of people. Forcing people to use smokeless fuels, which are far more expensive and less aesthetically pleasing, should be justified with hard evidence.

Just for good measure, under this policy logs would need to have no more than 20 per cent moisture to be permitted for sale. That’s difficult to achieve by just leaving them to dry out in the air, so that means they will usually need to be kiln-dried. Sticking logs in a big oven to dry out is surely going to add to the UK’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Oh, the irony.

This ban is excessive and the evidence to justify it is weak. Ministers and civil servants must be too busy listening to the lobbying of NGOs to take account of the interests of wider society.

Rob Lyons is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a spiked columnist.

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David Bunney

27th February 2020 at 11:19 pm

Nobody in their right mind tries to burn wet-wood as it doesn’t work and smokes… but the question is what % of moisture will the government consider wet and why can’t a tree surgeon who has cut a tree down at number 3 give or sell the wood to number 10 who will put it in their log-store for a good six to ten months and season it themselves… this eco-fascism is really too much !! Any sensible person only burns dry wood; as for coal if you build your fire correctly and get it up to a good high temperature then I don’t see much smoke or particles… then we come on to the multiple science disciplines coming together here… firstly there is the issue of exposures and concentrations and what it does to your lungs and your other organs once in your blood… I am not an expert on this but I would guess it is being exaggerated like every other law needing justification for taxing us more or taking away our freedoms…. then there is the boundary layer meteorology and mixing of pollutants… this is where I do know a bit and here I would say that smoke coming out of one or two chimneys is going to do very little to particulate concentrations… if you are indeed standing over your bonfire with your head in the smoke coming off it then you are going to choke and cough… but if it’s a rainy and windy January evening and you are in your house and your neighbour or even more likely someone a street or more away from you has a fire going… then are you exposed to high concentrations of dangerous particles??? You cannot take a single reading in one place and consider it representative for conditions even a street away… as anyone knows when they have a smoky bonfire if you are directly down-wind within a 50 meters or so you will smell the smoke but it also depends on weather conditions of wind, and temperature, how turbulent the wind is and the atmospheric temperature profile… in the specific case of your house emissions it depends on how air is funnelled around buildings creating turbulent wake… and mixing down stream… which both spreads the smoke out and reduces its concentrations in a given m3 of air… another point is how high the air comes out of a chimney stack… if you have a high chimney above the rooftops of the surrounding area, it is quite possible the smoke and particles don’t come back down to the ground… it is only really in extremely cold conditions with still air, already quite humid and misty and a temperature inversion close to rooftop height that smoke from a high number of houses all burning wet logs together at the same time might create smogs and particulate concentrations that might harm people. There might be future conditions when people who have been made poor by stupid net-zero energy policies can no longer afford electricity and/or periods when there is no wind or solar power output from still anticyclonic conditions; under these circumstances people might move to burn wood en-mass if it is the only way not to freeze to death and then we might see the return of the London Smog… however if you are a farm house in the countryside or 1 out of 20 or 30 houses in a street burning seasoned logs in a modern stove at proper temperatures then your pollution and health impact on neighbours is going to be next to zero… so for goodness sakes will the government leave alone…


24th February 2020 at 10:30 pm

I love my Chesney 5kw wood burner and will defend it to the death.

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