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Trying to shake the wood burning habit in New Zealand

When journalist Georgie Hughes left Air Quality News to spend a year in New Zealand, she was amazed by the country’s enthusiasm for wood burning. Here she examines why it’s so popular down under.

Before I moved to New Zealand I pictured crystal clear waters, majestic mountains and clean, fresh air completely untouched by pollution. But since arriving in this amazing country, it’s fair to say there have been some unexpected surprises. I never expected to hear the phrase ‘good as gold’ so often or to pay quite so much for a pack of cherry tomatoes, but the biggest surprise was the prevalence of wood burning here. As chimney smoke choked my small town over winter, I wondered how, in a country which prides itself on its environment, such a damaging activity could be so popular?

Ever since energy prices skyrocketed, wood burning has been increasing in popularity in the UK, with log sellers reporting a significant jump in demand last year. What was once an aesthetic choice, an occassional activity to enhance cosiness at Christmas, has become a necessity in some homes to reduce high energy bills. In Aotearoa, the original Māori name for New Zealand, wood burning has been a popular source of home heating for years, even prior to the energy crisis. Environmental Health Intelligence New Zealand (EHINZ) found that in 2018 one third of private dwellings used wood burners or pellet fires as their main form of heating. In the UK a 2015 government survey revealed that only 7.5% of the population used wood fuel for some of their heating.

Instead it’s far more common for British households to have central heating. 98.5% of households in England and Wales reported so in the 2021 UK Census. Living in the UK I’d become accustomed to this and had rather a nasty shock when I arrived in NZ where only 18.1% of homes used gas heaters in 2018. Now I was thrust into a home with single glazing that was almost entirely reliant on a wood burner for heat, save for the small electric heater in my bedroom. Goodbye central heating, hello condensation and mould.

If, like me, you’re confused as to why central heating isn’t popular out here, it turns out that lack of infrastructure is part of the problem. Natural gas pipelines have only been built on the North Island, meaning inhabitants in the south are only able to access LPG gas bottles. Additionally, Kiwis were already facing expensive gas bills prior to the energy crisis, leading many households in Aotearoa to choose cheap wood to fuel their homes.

Readers of Air Quality News are well aware of the negatives of burning wood, as particulate matter expelled from wood burners has been linked to heart and lung disease and respiratory problems like asthma and strokes. A 2016 report from New Zealand’s Ministry for Environment found that air pollution was responsible for 3,300 premature deaths per year, over 13,200 cases of childhood asthma and 13,100 hospital admissions for respiratory illnesses. This has also resulted in social costs of around $15.6bn per year.

National air quality standards are seeking to combat this, with some legislation taking particular aim at wood burners. These vary from prohibiting the use of open fires, restrictions on the age and type of wood burner that can be used and the type of materials that can be burned. Paul Hopwood, principal water and land implementation advisor for Environment Canterbury, says these regulations have proved a success for his region’s air quality: ‘Air quality in our largest towns has improved markedly in recent years, with a requirement to progressively improve air quality in areas identified as polluted airsheds,’ he said. ‘Air quality has improved in Christchurch over the past 10 years, from approximately 20 exceedances in 2013 to just two in 2023 (PM10 standard). Environment Canterbury also have a target to achieve zero exceedances of PM2.5. by 2030.’

PM2.5. events, however, are more common in Christchurch, with 10 exceedances this year, while other parts of the region, like Kaiapoi and Timaru, have seen 23 and 27 PM2.5 events. These exceedances could be as high as 30μg m³, since NZ has no national standards for PM2.5. In the UK, annual mean PM2.5. concentrations are limited to 1030μg m³ through legally binding government targets.

But the success of tackling PM10 emissions across the country has brought hugely beneficial results. The city of Rotorua on the North Island has historically had some of the worst air quality in New Zealand, but monitoring sites have shown that the city has gone from 37 exceedances of the PM10 limit in 2008 to one in 2020 and none at all in 2021. Toi Te Ora Public Health medical officer Dr Gregory Evans spoke recently to the council about the impact this has had on the community. He estimated that early adult deaths due to domestic fire produced air pollution had reduced from 40 in 2009 to 19 in 2022 and the number of years of lives lost had reduced from 596 to 245.

With so many NZ homes lacking any kind of insulation or double glazing, it’s also imperative that housing energy efficiency is improved to reduce reliance on wood burners. If Brits think they have it bad, with some of the draughtiest homes in Europe, they would be out of their depth living in a home on the chilly South Island. Aotearoa’s official data agency found that 76% of homes were entirely single-glazed in 2020 compared to just 6% in the UK, and 14% of Kiwi’s were concerned that their homes were too cold in winter.

New Zealand’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority’s Warmer Kiwi Homes Programme seeks to address this by helping to cover costs of insulation and new energy efficient heaters for homes that need it. Henry Nepia, Manager of Warmer Kiwi Homes, said the programme has helped to make a difference to a large number of homes, keeping costs down and lowering carbon emissions. He said: ‘Since Warmer Kiwi Homes launched in 2018, the programme has completed 132,433 retrofits to make homes warmer, drier and healthier.

The grants cover 80-90% of the cost of ceiling and underfloor insulation, and up to 80% of the cost of an energy efficient heater, usually a heat pump. We also have relationships with community organisations across the country who provide top-up funding, meaning many homeowners get their insulation and heating at even lower, or no, cost.’

New Zealanders may seem behind in their chronic use of wood burners, but they’re light years ahead in their use of heat pumps. This is the most popular form of heating in the country, with 47.3% of households using them.

Heat pump installation may have reached over 3,000 per month for the first time this year in the UK, but it’s a long way until nearly half the population uses one. With the current successes of wood burner regulations and the popularity of energy efficient heat pumps it isn’t difficult to see how New Zealand can get its air quality back on track and turn away from polluting wood burners.

The nation down under currently has some of the cleanest air in the world, despite its wood habit.

The UK could definitely learn a thing or two on how to reduce air pollution, as wood burning becomes ever more popular during the energy crisis.

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chris
chris
4 months ago

Thank you, lots in here to read. So, NZ is ahead with its heat pumps, very good,but behind with the old wood burners? Let’s hope the heat pumps win. But not easy for those living off grid or on very low income.Same in rural UK as to the wood burning, and we are not even installing that many heat pumps. I think they are catching on more in Europe?

Jessica L Feinleib
Jessica L Feinleib
4 months ago

Great point about single paned windows!! This was the case when I visited NZ in the 1980s and still the same in 2018…… With the same complaints from the locals about cold a damp winters. This is in direct contrast to how usually practical and clear thinking NZ are usually. We were very lucky to stay at Lake Stone Lodge and see how passive house design was being put to good use. https://www.lakestonelodge.co.nz/

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