Editor's Pick

What’s to be done about the UK’s Wood Burning Stove Problem?

Dr James Heydon is an Assistant Professor in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. His research centres on how formal and informal social controls can be used to address environmental problems.

Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions can cause serious health problems for vulnerable groups, such as the young, elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. In the decade since 2012, PM2.5 emissions from domestic combustion – households burning fuels like wood, coal and smokeless fuels to heat their home – increased by 19%. By 2022 this made up almost 30% of the UK’s PM2.5 emissions.

Given this increase, one could be forgiven for thinking that UK policy makers are blind to the problem or have little interest in legislating against it. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The UK has one of the oldest regimes for controlling domestic combustion emissions anywhere in the world.

So, what is going on?
The UK’s main regulatory tool for tackling domestic combustion emissions is the smoke control area (SCA). Originally created by the Clean Air Act 1956, these SCAs create zones where use of highly polluting fuels (like coal) and appliances are prohibited. If someone is found to be breaking these rules, by emitting visible smoke from an appliance or fuel not on a government list, they can be fined. However, at almost seven decades old, this regime is outdated and has several features that make it unfit for purpose in the present day.

Created in the 1950s to control the smoke-fuelled London smogs that killed 12,000 people in three months, these regulations have evolved very little over the intervening period. SCAs cover less than 10% of the UK’s landmass and are fragmented across local council jurisdictions, creating an inconsistent patchwork of rulebound space both within and between urban areas.

While some SCAs cover whole population centres (e.g. Manchester and Birmingham), others apply to only a small number of roads or neighbourhoods within cities populated by hundreds of thousands (e.g. Cambridge and Norwich). Other cities have no SCAs at all, like Cardiff, with a population of over 360,000. This is similar to most rural locations, where whole towns and villages – which have changed significantly since the 1950s – have no SCAs at all (e.g. Loughborough and Stafford).

Even where they do exist, SCAs are difficult for councils to enforce. Between 2014 and 2020, only 0.04% complaints against chimney smoke resulted in a fine. Even after the Environment Act 2021 made it easier for councils to issue penalties, only one fine resulted from the 10,000 complaints received since January 2022. This points to the limits of a complaints-driven approach reliant on public knowledge of an obscure problem, and the difficulties investigating complaints once reported. Put simply, it’s not easy to evidence chimney smoke out of hours, among any number of smoking chimneys and condensing boilers, in winter, in the dark.

This reality is set against the backdrop of resourcing constraints. Between 2010 and 2020, the amount of money councils received from central government fell by 40%. Since then, the pandemic and rising cost of living have further squeezed resources, causing several councils to declare ‘bankruptcy’. It is little wonder the default council complaint response is to send a letter containing central government advice on how to ‘burn better’.

This points to another problem. Even if SCAs covered the entire country, and enforcement was easy, an abundance of PM2.5 would still be emitted. Stove regulations are caught in tension between what they were introduced to achieve and what is now expected of them. In the 1950s, SCAs discouraged the burning of coal in fireplaces by encouraging use of relatively ‘smoke-less’ fuels and stoves instead. This made sense when smoke was the issue. However, since then, the much less visible PM2.5 has come to be recognised as a distinct (though related) problem.

Even when no smoke can be seen, the latest stove appliances – operating under ideal conditions – emit over 300 times the PM2.5 of a gas fired boiler each hour, and produce 750 times the PM2.5 of a new heavy goods vehicle. They also emit twice the amount of ultrafine particulate matter as older designs, which is smaller and more toxic than PM2.5.

This is problematic when considering that Defra has exempt over 2,500 types of stove from SCA rules since 2010 – these can be installed and lit anywhere, in any number, and for any length of time. Ultimately, in relying on seventy-year-old regulations to persuade people to ‘burn better’, SCAs are encouraging a practice that still produces ample amounts of PM2.5.

What, then, is to be done?
A dominant reason for stove use is the ‘cosy aesthetic’, being installed and lit by those who already have central heating. With the smogs of the 1950s a distant memory, ‘Defra-certified’ and ‘Ecodesign’ labels popularising the notion that wood burning is ‘environmentally friendly’, and stove use becoming more fashionable among the affluent, burning solid fuel to heat the home is now generally seen as harmless and desirable.

In this context, several campaign groups have called for stoves to be phased out where no other heating source exists. Aimed at ‘denormalising’ this ordinary yet collectively harmful behaviour, there are several points at which such efforts can be directed.

At the point of sale, health warnings to raise awareness of stove emissions (both indoor and outdoor) is an option, having been called for by researchers and more than 100 MPs. Restrictions can be placed on marketing, similar to e-cigarettes, that undermines public health messaging. A full advertising ban could also be considered, much like tobacco products.

At the point of installation, air quality limits could be introduced that restrict the installation of solid fuel appliances in homes, as in London. More direct restrictions could also be pursued, such as no new installations within SCA boundaries, urban areas or in new builds (e.g. San Francisco).

Even if the number of stoves purchased and installed is capped, this still leaves millions in operation. Targeted information campaigns can be used to counter prevailing understandings of domestic burning as harmless and, much like driving under the influence or while using a mobile phone, discourage behaviour. Lancaster and Camden councils, and Surrey Air Alliance, operating in support of Global Action Plan’s Clean Air Night, are examples of messaging campaigns employed to raise awareness of the public health effects, counter industry narratives, and dissuade use.

One innovation being trialled by a team at the Universities of Nottingham and Sheffield is the UK’s first ‘burn alert’ tool, which introduces the possibility of ‘no burn days’. Existing warning services tend to advise people on how to avoid air pollution (e.g. “reduce physical exertion…outdoors”), but burn alerts ask stove users not to light if air quality is already – or projected to be – poor. In this way, the tool speaks directly to the source of PM2.5 instead of those exposed to it.

Spikes in living costs can encourage people to burn scavenged or waste wood to save on heating bills. For these, financial support needs to be coupled with longer-term efforts at improving insulation and encouraging wider uptake of cleaner domestic heating technologies.

Ultimately, though, without SCA reform a wider suite of interventions is needed to compensate for the deficiencies stemming from continued reliance on a 20th century regime to address a 21st century problem.

This article first appeared in issue 24 of Air Quality News magazine

Photo of James by Alex Wilkinson Media


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top