Why Wood Burning Stoves are NOT the main cause of pollution

As I write this it would seem the media is waking up to previously reported concerns relating to Why your woodburning stove is not harmful to the environmentdeteriorating air quality in our major cities as cited in The Guardian article reprinted in last month’s issue of fireplace.co.uk.

As ever, London is the focus for attention as obviously it has a greater density of population and all the associated traffic movements. Anyone will tell you that a day trip to the capital will result in a black line around your shirt collar and unpleasant sooty particles in your nasal passages.

This should come as no surprise as I was warning about this issue as long ago as 2015. At that time a number of academic papers were circulating relating to poor UK air quality and high levels of particulate emissions.  Further, the EU were threatening the UK Government with prosecution for persistently exceeding European air quality pollution limits, a threat which continues to this day.

Why your woodburning stove is not harmful to the environment 1As a consequence, DEFRA has undertaken a number of studies into the problem including a nationwide air sampling exercise to determine the source and location of the worse emissions.  Air quality recorders have been positioned up and down the country to measure levels of particulates in the atmosphere.  In addition, they have commissioned a study by consultants Ricardo AEA to explore the major causes and recommend practical solutions.

Historically, the UK has benefitted from the 1956 Clean Air Act removing ‘dark smoke’ from the majority of our towns and cities thereby cleaning up the grime so prevalent during the first half of the 20th century.  So why are we suffering today?
The jury is still out but many learned scientists and doctors are convinced the problem surrounds the prevalence of microscopically small particles ingested from the air by people living and working in our major cities.

To explain, particulate matter is commonly measured as PM25, PM10 and PM2.5.  The number refers to parts per million (PM).  At the top of the scale is PM25 which is present in visible smoke.  At the other end of the scale is PM2.5 which is so fine it is not visible to the naked eye and is considered the most dangerous.  It can lodge deep in the respiratory system and may lead to long term illness.  The typical face mask will not remove this fine material.

Many experts are pointing the finger at diesel engine exhaust gasses and the law of ‘unintended consequences’.  Research indicates the majority of fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide come from motor vehicle exhaust, particularly diesel engines.  Yet it was Government propaganda which encouraged many drivers to switch to diesel vehicles in order to reduce CO2 emissions at a time when ‘climate change’ was high on the agenda.  It is estimated that today 50% of cars on UK roads are diesel powered, a significant increase from the 10% figure common prior to the ‘climate change’ panic.
So? I hear you ask. What has this to do with fireplace.co.uk and its readers?

Well, it should come as no surprise that the petroleum industry lobby is very rich and powerful. Clearly negative reporting is unwelcome, especially when accompanied by talk of developing electric vehicles as a panacea.  I am aware of several attempts by the environmental lobby to deflect attention by pointing the finger at wood burning stoves as the real culprit. The popularity of stoves is no longer a rural ideal and increasing numbers are being installed in town and city centre homes.  Moreover, I have come across reports suggesting that air quality problem are exacerbated by wood burning and suggesting they be banned.  Perversely, most city centres are within Smoke Control Areas within which burning wood is illegal unless used on a DEFRA Exempted appliance.  Yet one report I read suggested the culprits were customers burning wood on simple open fires.  If this is the case, what are Local Authority Environmental Health Officers up to?  The solution is simple – prosecute those responsible.

In reality, the numbers do not stack up. The quantity of cars, vans and HGV’s on the road far outweigh the population sector using a stove for supplementary heating. However, I am aware that Government Consultants have been asking pertinent questions about stove usage, distribution and density.  Let us hope common sense will prevail.

On the subject of The Clean Air Act and its various amendments over the intervening years, I have recently come across Why your woodburning stove is not harmful to the environment 2various references suggesting that the Act no longer applies in the UK and has been removed from the Statute Book.  This is categorically not the case.  Smoke Control Areas remain operational in areas where Local Authorities declared them appropriate – although it appears some Councils claim they are not aware of which areas were designated within their jurisdiction, or lost the files!.

DEFRA are currently investigating the whole problem of how to deal with 21st Century air pollution as part of their defence.  I believe we may see the results of their research before too long.  How this will sit alongside the Clean Air Act is unclear as removing an Act of Parliament from the statute book is complex.  Although of course, a new style Clean Air Act demanding higher and more stringent air quality standards could serve to subsume existing legislation.

This is a very complex issue and ‘unintended consequences’ must be avoided at all costs.  Recent history should tell us that knee jerk reactions to solve an immediate problem seldom result in sound decisions.

For example, proposing all city vehicles be electric powered sounds great but – the increased demand for electricity must be met in an efficient and timely manner.  The Times recently reported (11th February) that Transport for London estimate switching to an all-electric vehicle fleet in the capital would demand five times the amount of power needed to run the entire London Underground network.  Further, at the maximum level of uptake they estimate city green cars would demand seven to eight gigawatt hours per year – equivalent to more than two nuclear power stations the size of Hinkley Point.  Extrapolated nationally, it would require the equivalent of 20 new nuclear power stations nationwide.

Jim Lambeth


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