We know that many people have chosen wood burners for environmental reasons, and we know they are cosy and nostalgic, but we want to make sure everyone is aware of the impacts of wood burning on the environment and health, and how to avoid and reduce those.
Wood burning has been considered a low carbon or carbon neutral heating source, because trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow which counterbalances the carbon dioxide released when they are burned. However, it takes a long time for trees to re-grow and re-capture the carbon that is emitted far more quickly in one go through burning. This is important when we are trying to tackle the climate emergency. In addition, a large proportion of wood sold in the UK has come from abroad, where it may not have been sustainably forested, there are carbon emissions from transporting the wood and (kiln) drying the wood which requires energy use. Wood burning is also not a particularly efficient energy source, from an equal amount of heat or electricity, it releases more carbon dioxide than burning gas, oil or even coal.
If your motivation for wood burning is to reduce carbon, you might want to consider other low carbon heating options. It is also important to think about where the wood has come from and whether new trees are planted for those removed, as well as whether it been grown locally and dried naturally with fewer emissions from transport and drying processes.
Wood burning has been found to produce large amounts of particulate pollution, which can contribute to climate change and is harmful to health. A DEFRA survey has shown that 49% of open fire and stove users are unaware of the health impacts of burning wood. DEFRA figures indicate that 25% of PM2.5 pollution in the UK comes from domestic burning, with 17% from wood burning and 14% from coal burning. This is compared to 13% from road transport, with particulate pollution from wood burning still increasing and particulate pollution from road transport decreasing. Air Quality News investigated the impact that wood burning has on indoor pollution and their monitoring suggested that when using a wood burner in a residential area with other wood burners, the average PM2.5 level across 24 hours was 72.9 μg/m3, regarded as ‘unhealthy to all’.
Reduce air pollution by avoiding unnecessary burning; only use appliances when essential and use other heating options if available. If you do use your wood burner follow best practice for running it and avoid using it when poor air quality is forecast. If you want a cleaner and less polluting heating source, consider renewables or electric with a renewable tariff instead of a wood burner. Even gas central heating is less polluting in terms of particulate pollution in your home and neighbourhood; make sure to get your boiler regularly serviced and use a carbon monoxide alarm.
Removing trees and clearing wood from forests reduces biodiversity and wildlife habitats. Leaving fallen wood on the ground to rot creates important habitats and food sources for wildlife and insects, and contributes to soil quality. Bonfires can damage habitats and are a direct risk to hibernating wildlife particularly around winter. Air pollution from wood burning can affect not only human health but also wildlife and pets.
Instead of removing or burning dead wood, leave it to decompose naturally and provide a great habitat. Find out why it is essential to be planting more trees for climate change, biodiversity, health and wellbeing and more. If you do need to have a bonfire check it thoroughly before lighting for small animals like hedgehogs and mice, and make sure to build it away from trees and hedges where wildlife may be sheltering.