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Wednesday 24 January 2024

Shining a light on the uncomfortable truth about wood burning

Up to now, it’s been easy to associate the glow of a fire or wood burner with comfort. Pressures on household finances may have tempted more people towards burning wood in the belief that it’s cheaper or more environmentally friendly.

However, we want to help protect people and planet by shining a light on these myths and letting you know that in fact, wood burning hurts your wallet, your health and the planet.

New evidence shows wood burning actually:

  • Harms your wallet: wood burning is almost always more expensive than other forms of heating.
  • Harms your health: lighting fires in our homes is the largest source of harmful small particulate matter air pollution in the UK.
  • Harms the planet: wood burning creates more harmful CO2 emissions compared to other forms of heating and we cannot reproduce trees fast enough to offset the CO2 emitted by burning wood.

This page contains information and resources for local authorities, organisations and campaigners that want to talk to their communities about this topic. To find out more about how wood burning impacts you directly, visit the Clean Air Hub.

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The Clean Air Hub is our public facing site for clean air information. All the health information on this site is fully referenced and reviewed by our academic panel.

For Clean Air Night, the Clean Air Hub will host public facing information on the facts about wood burning, helping to debunk common myths around wood burning, and providing information on how and why wood burning is bad for your health.

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Frequently Asked Questions on Wood Burning

There is low public awareness of the harms of wood burning, and this topic can provoke strong reactions as well as interest. These Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are intended as a guide for organisations that want to communicate about wood burning, to help you shape your responses.

Misconceptions

  • There is new and mounting evidence that shows wood burning harms your wallet, your health and the planet.

  • Lighting fires in our homes (domestic burning) is the single biggest source of harmful small particle air pollution in the UK. Burning wood accounts for 75% of these emissions.1

  • Over the past ten years, the amount of harmful small particle air pollution caused by domestic burning has more than doubled, while the pollution caused by industry and cars, vans and lorries is decreasing.2

  • Wood burning in an open fire or stove – even an “ecodesign” stove – is the most polluting way to heat your home.3 Even homes with the newest “ecodesign” wood burners are three times more polluted than those without.3

  • Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to our health. The more harmful small particle air pollution you are exposed to, the more likely you are to die from heart or lung disease or lung cancer. It can also cause diabetes, damage your brain health and lead to dementia, and affect unborn children.3

  • For the same amount of heat or energy, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide (CO2) than oil or gas.4

  • Wood burners are almost always more expensive to heat your home than gas boilers or heat pumps.5

  • We know that this information is not widely known or spoken about. The aim of Clean Air Night is to empower the public with the facts about wood burning so they can make informed choices for themselves, their health and their community.


[1] Emissions of air pollutants in the UK – Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5)
[2] Emissions of air pollutants in the UK - tables
[3] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution
[4] Range and uncertainties in estimating delays in greenhouse gas mitigation potential of forest bioenergy sourced from Canadian forests
[5] Wood burning is more expensive than central heating

  • Wood burning in an open fire or stove (even an “ecodesign” stove) is the most polluting way to heat your home.1

  • Even homes with the newest “ecodesign” wood burners are three times more polluted than those without.1

  • The more harmful small particle air pollution you are exposed to, the more likely you are to die from heart or lung disease or lung cancer. It can also cause diabetes, damage your brain health and lead to dementia, and affect unborn children.1

  • The harmful pollution created by wood burners doesn’t only affect you – it’s also released into the atmosphere and can damage the health of those living around you. Most people who use wood burners in their home live in towns or cities, which creates poor air quality in these more densely populated areas.

  • We know that this information is not widely known or spoken about. The aim of Clean Air Night is to empower the public with the facts about wood burning so they can make informed choices for themselves, their health and their community.


[1] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution

  • Wood burning is a problem in rural areas. The harmful pollution created by wood burners affects those using them as well as those living nearby.

  • Wood burning is also an issue in our towns and cities. Over twice as many people who burn indoors live in towns and cities than in rural areas.1

  • Only 8% of those burning indoors have no alternative source of heating – and most of these people live in rural areas and are on lower incomes.1

  • Most people who burn wood live in towns and cities and are from more affluent households1 – yet everyone, including the most vulnerable, experiences the consequences in neighbouring homes and communities.

  • Lighting fires in our homes (domestic burning) is the single biggest source of harmful small particle air pollution in the UK. Burning wood accounts for 75% of these emissions.2

  • Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to our health. The more harmful small particle air pollution you are exposed to, the more likely you are to die from heart or lung disease or lung cancer. It can also cause diabetes, damage your brain health and lead to dementia, and affect unborn children.3

  • We know that this information is not widely known or spoken about. The aim of Clean Air Night is to empower the public with the facts about wood burning so they can make informed choices for themselves, their health and their community.


[1] Burning in UK Homes and Gardens
[2] Emissions of air pollutants in the UK – Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5)
[3] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution

  • There was a 40% increase in purchases of wood burners between 2021-22, and the Stove Industry Alliance expects sales to rise even further this winter.

  • In January 2023 London’s air was the dirtiest it has been in six years – up to 70% of the soot/black carbon in the air came from wood burning.1

  • Only 8% of those burning indoors do so because they have no other choice.2 Most people burn for aesthetic and lifestyle reasons, or because they believe it’s cheaper than using other forms of heating.

  • Wood burning in an open fire or stove (even an “ecodesign” stove) is the most polluting way to heat your home.3

  • Wood burners are almost always more expensive to heat your home than gas boilers or heat pumps.4

  • For the same amount of heat or energy, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide (CO2) than oil or gas.5

  • We know that this information is not widely known or spoken about. The aim of Clean Air Night is to empower the public with the facts about wood burning so they can make informed choices for themselves, their health and their community.


[1] Worst London air pollution in six years as home fires burn
[2] Burning in UK Homes and Gardens
[3] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution
[4] Wood burning is more expensive than central heating
[5] Range and uncertainties in estimating delays in greenhouse gas mitigation potential of forest bioenergy sourced from Canadian forests

  • There is new and mounting evidence that shows wood burning harms your wallet, your health and the planet.

  • Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to our health. Lighting fires in our homes (domestic burning) is the single biggest source of harmful small particle air pollution in the UK.1

  • We want to help protect people and planet by shining a light on myths about wood burning being cheaper or more environmentally friendly.

  • We know that this information is not widely known or spoken about. The aim of Clean Air Night is to empower the public with the facts about wood burning so they can make informed choices for themselves, their health and their community.


[1] Emissions of air pollutants in the UK – Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5)

  • Smoke control areas (SCAs) are areas in England where wood cannot be burned, except in an exempt appliance – also known as “ecodesign” stoves.

  • But, wood burning in an open fire or stove – even an “ecodesign” stove – is the most polluting way to heat your home. Even homes with the newest “ecodesign” wood burners are three times more polluted than those without.1

  • There is new and mounting evidence that shows wood burning harms your wallet, your health and the planet.

  • Lighting fires in our homes (domestic burning) is the single biggest source of harmful small particle air pollution in the UK. Burning wood accounts for 75% of these emissions.2

  • Over the past ten years, the amount of harmful small particle air pollution caused by domestic burning has more than doubled, while the pollution caused by industry and cars, vans and lorries is decreasing.3


[1] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution
[2] Emissions of air pollutants in the UK – Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5)
[3] Emissions of air pollutants in the UK, Tables

Types of burning

  • While open fires are the most polluting way to heat your home, even homes with the newest “ecodesign” wood burners are three times more polluted than those without.1

  • Almost twice as many people who burn indoors use a stove rather than an open fire.2


[1] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution
[2] Burning in UK Homes and Gardens

  • Even homes with the newest “ecodesign” wood burners are three times more polluted than those without.1

  • For the same amount of heat or energy, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide (CO2) than oil or gas.2

  • It can take decades for trees to regrow and absorb the carbon emitted by harvesting and burning wood and in the meantime, the atmospheric carbon released contributes to climate change.3
  • Cutting down trees destroys forests, damages ecosystems and leads to biodiversity loss.4

  • The “ecodesign” label on stoves is unfortunately misleading consumers to believe that burning wood in these stoves doesn’t produce pollution or harm the environment – whereas the truth is that wood burning harms your health and the planet.

  • We know that this information is not widely known or spoken about. The aim of Clean Air Night is to empower the public with the facts about wood burning so they can make informed choices for themselves, their health and their community.


[1] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution

[2] Range and uncertainties in estimating delays in greenhouse gas mitigation potential of forest bioenergy sourced from Canadian forests

[3] Does replacing coal with wood lower CO2 emissions? Dynamic lifecycle analysis of wood bioenergy

[4] A stand of trees does not a forest make: Tree plantations and forest transitions

  • Wood burning in an open fire or stove is the most polluting way to heat your home.1

  • Burning well-dried wood will reduce the amount of pollutants produced to a quarter of the pollution of wet wood, but it is still highly polluting compared to other heat sources.1

  • Burning wet or contaminated wood is even worse for your health. If you burn wet wood, the fuel will burn at a lower temperature and result in a higher level of air pollution. Burning contaminated wood, such as painted or treated/preserved wood, will also create more air pollution.


[1] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution

  • There is new and mounting evidence that shows wood burning harms your wallet, your health and the planet.

  • We know that this information is not widely known or spoken about. The aim of Clean Air Night is to empower the public with the facts about wood burning so they can make informed choices for themselves, their health and their community.

  • Bonfires contribute to outdoor air pollution, so they are an issue, but not what we are focusing on in this campaign. Indoor wood burning stoves also contribute to outdoor air pollution for all of the neighbourhood around each burner.

  • Wood burning in restaurants contributes to outdoor and indoor air pollution, so it is an issue, but not what we are focusing on in this campaign.

Cost

  • Wood burners are almost always more expensive to heat your home than gas boilers or heat pumps.1

  • Research shows that in a typical urban household, the annual cost of using an existing wood burner is 15% higher than a gas boiler.1
  • When a household uses a newly installed wood burner for 20% of its heat, its yearly cost is 24% more than a gas boiler.1
  • That cost rises to almost 50% more expensive where a household uses a newly installed wood burner for 80% of its heat.1
  • The exception is if you have access to a forest and can forage your own wood – but then the wood must be dried properly, for at least two years.

  • •  The only scenario in which burners are cheaper is when the wood is free – for example, if you have access to private woodland and can forage your own wood (which must then be dried properly, for at least two years). Scrap wood that hasn’t been properly dried or seasoned or has coatings such as varnish or paint can be extremely toxic when burned.


[1] Wood burning is more expensive than central heating

  • Wood burning in an open fire or stove (even an “ecodesign” stove) is the most polluting way to heat your home.1

  • Even homes with the newest “ecodesign” wood burners are three times more polluted than those without.1

  • Most people who burn wood live in towns and cities and are from more affluent households2 – yet everyone, including the most vulnerable, experiences the consequences in neighbouring homes and communities.

  • We now know that wood burners are almost always more expensive to heat your home than gas boilers or heat pumps. 3


[1] Chief Medical Officer’s annual report 2022: air pollution

[2] Burning in UK Homes and Gardens

[3] Wood burning is more expensive than central heating

  • Claims that wood burners are cheaper than other forms of heating are based on unrealistically low assumptions about the cost of wood.
  • Research recently published by Global Action Plan and Impact on Urban Health included a “mystery shopper” exercise to verify claims about the cost of wood. The only way to match previously-quoted costs was to bulk buy large amounts of wood online (which requires space to be stored properly). Most online bulk and single bag purchases were more expensive. Single bag in-person purchases from garages, DIY stores and garden centres were even more expensive, with one garage over four times previously quoted costs.1
  • This research also looked at the costs of owning a wood burner compared to other sources of heating in real-world scenarios, based on two typical urban households. This took into account installation and maintenance costs, and current and future energy prices over a 15-year period.1

[1] Wood burning is more expensive than central heating

  • Only 8% of those burning indoors have no alternative source of heating.1 85% of UK households have a gas boiler2, so the most realistic scenario is to assume that a household would already have a gas boiler installed.
  • The economic research results are the average of a 15-year projection which takes into account the cost of replacing a gas boiler about halfway through its lifespan.
  • The research shows that even using an existing wood burner is still 15% more expensive than a gas boiler.3

[1] Burning in UK Homes and Gardens

[2] Offshore Energies UK , Economic Report 2023

[3] Wood burning is more expensive than central heating

  • The research is based on a three-bedroom terraced house, and one of scenarios looks at the cost of using a wood burner to provide 80% of heat. This would require at least two wood burners, and would be almost 50% more expensive than using a gas boiler alone.1
  • The research also looked a scenario with only one wood burner providing a secondary source of heating. This was 15% more expensive using a gas boiler alone.1
  • Some people may be tempted to use a wood burner as an off-grid source of heating so they are not reliant on energy companies. Heating a whole house using wood would realistically require two wood burners as they are designed to heat a space, not a whole house.

[1] Wood burning is more expensive than central heating

  • Every heating source works more efficiently and economically in better insulated houses. It is a common misconception that heat pumps don’t work in older properties such as the one included in the research. As long as the system is installed correctly, it will provide more than enough heating even in a poorly insulated house.1
  • The research is based on a late Victorian terraced house with loft insulation and double glazing, and the modelled installation costs of a heat pump include budget to install larger radiators and underfloor heating. This is still at least 6% cheaper than using a wood burner and gas central heating.2

[1] From flats to terraced houses: heat pumps are suitable for all property types

[1] Wood burning is more expensive than central heating

  • The research was based on 2023 data from Ofgem and Cornwall Insights (a trusted industry source). This was plugged into our dynamic simulation model to produce 15-year price projections, which were then used to model heating costs in real-world scenarios.

Environmental impact

  • Wood is not a carbon neutral fuel.

  • For the same amount of heat or energy, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide (CO2) than oil or gas.1

  • It can take decades for trees to regrow and reabsorb the carbon emitted by harvesting and burning wood and in the meantime, the atmospheric carbon released contributes to climate change.2
  • Cutting down trees destroys forests, damages ecosystems and leads to biodiversity loss.3


[1] Range and uncertainties in estimating delays in greenhouse gas mitigation potential of forest bioenergy sourced from Canadian forests

[2] Does replacing coal with wood lower CO2 emissions? Dynamic lifecycle analysis of wood bioenergy

[3] A stand of trees does not a forest make: Tree plantations and forest transitions

  • For the same amount of heat or energy, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide (CO2) than oil or gas.1

  • It can take decades for trees to regrow and absorb the carbon emitted by harvesting and burning wood and in the meantime, the atmospheric carbon released contributes to climate change.2
  • Timber plantations are usually dominated by a single species of tree, so they cannot support the diversity of animal and plant life found in natural forests.3
  • Cutting down trees destroys forests, damages ecosystems and leads to biodiversity loss.4

  • Over time, logging erodes soil and reduces its fertility.5
  • While good forest management involves thinning trees to promote biodiversity, the large demand for wood as a fuel we see in England poses a risk to biodiversity, either through single-species timber plantations or logging in natural forests.6


[1] Range and uncertainties in estimating delays in greenhouse gas mitigation potential of forest bioenergy sourced from Canadian forests

[2] Does replacing coal with wood lower CO2 emissions? Dynamic lifecycle analysis of wood bioenergy

[3] Are wood pellets a green fuel?

[4] A stand of trees does not a forest make: Tree plantations and forest transitions

[5] Is wood a green source of energy?

[6] Seeing the wood for the trees: the contribution of the forestry and timber sectors to biodiversity and net zero goals

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