Woodburning and Air Quality in the UK

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Great Smog, a pollution event that engulfed London in a thick ‘pea-soup’ cloud of noxious gases. The pollution event was caused by calm, cold conditions coupled with the burning of coal and other solid fuels. Early estimates reported that more than 4,000 people died; however, recent research has demonstrated that this figure is closer 12,000.

Thankfully, in the UK these smogs are a thing of the past. The Clean Air Act was implemented shortly after this event in 1956, which effectively banned visible emissions of smoke in Smoke Control Areas. However, burning wood and other solid fuels is still permitted, despite our understanding of the health effects of smoke and fine particulates (PM10 and PM2.5) and our knowledge of how polluting even the ‘cleanest stoves’ can be. Research undertaken by the European Environment Bureau demonstrated that even Ecodesign stoves emit 750 times more PM2.5 per unit of energy than modern heavy goods vehicles.

In recent years, the public has grown far more aware about the importance of air quality and the major sources of pollution.  In recent history, the focus has been on minimising emissions from road traffic, which is still the principal source of air pollution in many places in the UK. With the proliferation of electric vehicles, low traffic neighbourhoods and low-emission zones, emissions from this sector are decreasing. Furthermore, there are encouraging signs that new European emission standards (Euro 7 Class) emissions will help further drive down pollution levels.  As emissions from traffic have decreased, the proportion from wood burning and other sources of pollution has increased, and there has been growing consensus that domestic heating (including woodburning) is the next major emission source where improvements should be targeted.

Why is woodburning a problem?

Woodsmoke contains a suite of pollutants including fine particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, many of which are carcinogenic. There is a large, and ever-growing, body of research demonstrating the health effects of air pollution. It is a risk factor in so many chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease. Wood burners have been demonstrated to triple the level of harmful pollution levels inside homes and these emissions do not just remain in the local area. It was recently reported that woodburning in London was influencing air quality across the entire South-East of the UK.

“Here is the rule of thumb: one cigarette per day is the rough equivalent of a PM2.5 level of 22 μg/m3. Double that level, and it is equivalent to 2 cigarettes per day. Of course, unlike cigarette smoking, the pollution reaches every age group.”

Berkley Earth (2015)

Since the Covid-19 pandemic there has been a dramatic shift in the places where we live and work, with many spending much more time at home. Not only has this increased the exposure to domestic sources of pollution but it has increased emissions associated with domestic heating and woodburning.

Why has woodburning become more popular?

PM2.5 emissions associated with domestic wood burning increased by 35% between 2010 and 2020, with Defra noting that “most emissions from this source come from burning wood in closed stoves and open fires.”. So why is domestic wood burning increasing in popularity?

In the past year, the surging prices of gas and electricity have turned many people to use solid fuels to heat their homes and researchers are predicting that there is going to be large increases in air pollution this winter as a result.

Marketing a lifestyle: Hygge and woodburners

However, the current cost-of-living crisis doesn’t explain the long-term trend. Supporters of wood burners argue that wood is eco-friendly and a ‘renewable’ fuel.  The science is divided as to whether burning wood can help prevent climate change, or whether by designating it carbon neutral, it will drive deforestation and hence increase greenhouse gas emissions. Regardless of whether wood is defined as zero carbon or low carbon fuel, it is a fact that wood burning releases CO2.. As trees take time to grow, burning wood will no doubt drive up atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in the short-term. Given that there is an urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions, calling wood eco-friendly or renewable is somewhat dangerous.

What is more what is more Instagrammable…

A roaring fire in a country cottage or a combi-boiler tucked away in the airing cupboard?

Furthermore, the influence of social media cannot be ignored. Recent trends such as Cottagecore promote an idealised country and rural lifestyle and wood burners are certainly central to that aesthetic. Other similar social trends include the Danish concept of Hygge, which promotes cosiness. I ask you what is more what is more Instagrammable… a roaring fire in a country cottage or a combi-boiler tucked away in the airing cupboard?

The offending woodburning stove in the top left picture.

How is domestic woodburning legilsated?

The Clean Air Act (1956) introduced multiple measures to reduce air pollution, including the introduction of Smoke Control Areas which legislated that households in these areas, including canal boats and house boats, should use smokeless fuels. Those who do not burn an authorised fuel or use a DEFRA exempt appliance in a Smoke Control Area risk a substantial fine.  

Since the 1st January 2022 it became illegal in the UK to manufacture or sell a stove that wasn’t Ecodesign Ready, and from the 1st May 2021, the Air Quality Solid Fuel regulations banned the sale of the wet wood and house coals. The Ecodesign regulations set efficiency and emission standards for new products. However, these standards do not apply to stoves purchased prior to 1st January. These stoves can still be used as long as the fuel is permitted in the Air Quality Solid Fuel regulations and is ‘Ready to Burn’ (i.e., less than 20% moisture content).

There has been another recent change in the legislation concerning domestic wood burning, which has gone somewhat under the radar.  The Statutory Nuisance Provisions of the 1990 Environment Act traditionally prevented emissions of smoke, odour and other fumes from commercial premises from causing a nuisance.  However, in May 2022, the legislation was altered so that smoke emissions from all premises in the UK, including residential dwellingswere subject to the provisions. As such, if it can be demonstrated that the smoke is harming your health or is likely to harm your health, the local authority has the power to serve an abatement notice, to ensure that the person responsible restricts or stops the smoke.  

These complaints are assessed by the local authority’s Environmental Health Department. To evaluate whether a smoke constitutes a statutory nuisance, they will look at the amount of smoke produced, how often emissions occur and ask how unreasonable the activity is. If you want to argue that a smoke is a statutory nuisance, it is advisable that you support the council by collating your own evidence (e.g. a log book and the results of air quality monitoring).

What could be done to better control woodburning?

Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC) in their most recent Air Quality Action Plan suggested that the entire city be declared a Smoke Control Area. This would be a positive step; however, it is not clear whether this would lead to a decrease in smoke emissions. The enforcement of Smoke Control Areas is poor and recent research from ENDS report highlighted that no Local Authority has issued a fine for smoke pollution in the past five years, despite 8000 complaints.  

DEFRA has recently missed its legal deadline for setting new air quality targets, as part of the new Environmental Bill 2021. This is not surprising given that Defra has recently been reported as having a ‘culture of delay’. There is, however, another piece of upcoming legislation that could change the air quality legislative landscape in the UK. The Clean Air Human Rights Bill, also known as Ella’s Law, proposes to bring national air quality standards for key pollutants in line with WHO guidelines, promoting the legal right to breathe clean air, in both indoor and outdoor environments.  I strongly encourage any readers to write to their MP in support of this bill, which would have profoundly positive public health implications for years to come.

What can Greenavon do to help you?

Greenavon are experts in the field of air quality assessment and can advise you on rights regarding emissions of smoke. We can provide services including air quality monitoring and data analysis to support technical documents that can be shared with local authorities.  If you would like to learn more about how Greenavon can support you, do not hesitate to contact us.

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