Viewpoints: Is it Time we Stopped Burning Wood in our Homes?
With London mayor Sadiq Khan urging the government to introduce a ban on woodburning stoves, we asked two experts to provide their thoughts on the viability of this popular home choice
Are woodburning stoves as ‘green’ as some proclaim them to be? Two experts share their opinions on the topic
back the ban Rather than burning our wood, we should be building with it, locking away the carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, says architect Paul Testa
Let me first make it clear that I love a fire; don’t we all? There’s something about sitting in front of a real flame that connects us with our hunter-gatherer selves. It’s primal and brilliant. But we’re not cavemen or women anymore; so why, after the advent of central heating and insulated homes, do we still burn wood for heat? Fashion definitely has a role to play. The woodburning stove has become one of the must-haves of this generation. The reasons for this are laudable: it’s sustainable and cuts energy costs. But how sustainable is it?
The Sustainability Argument
Trees take a relatively long time to grow, slowly absorbing atmospheric carbon and storing it in their timber. We can then choose to do lots of things with those trees: leave them to grow and continue to absorb carbon; make things like furniture and buildings, retaining that carbon storage for tens if not hundreds of years; chop them down and leave them to rot, releasing the carbon over many years; or burn them for heat and/or power, releasing the carbon almost instantaneously back into the atmosphere.
This would be better if we were using timber that was already a waste product or from a fast-growing local source. But most people don’t live next to a sawmill or have trees that they can coppice in their back gardens, and windfall branches in local woods only provide for so long.
Growing timber and having a market for sustainable forestry is good, but let’s lock as much of that carbon away for as long as possible — let’s build our homes out of it rather than burn it.
And what about the impact on air quality? What about the microscopic particulates that get produced by the burning of wood that find their way into the air we breathe and into our lungs? Since the Clean Air Act in 1952 things have improved significantly. Woodburning stoves burn much hotter and more efficiently than open fires, reducing the particulate matter but not eliminating the problem. However, with the increased uptake of solid fuel stoves they are starting to have a significant and identifiable impact on air quality in our cities.
Air quality is often at its worst in cold conditions. The colder easterly winds in winter are often carrying particulates from continental Europe. Colder conditions are also more likely to induce temperature inversions, holding the poor air close to the ground rather than it rising to higher altitudes. These are the exact conditions when stove use is most intense, creating a perfect storm of terrible air quality and poor health in our cities.
Current UK advice in periods of extremely poor air quality is to avoid strenuous exercise. This is no solution at all and completely fails to acknowledge the causes of the issue, and why measures to curb stove use should be welcomed.
Obviously stoves are not the only culprit and restrictions should be part of a more comprehensive package of measures, including plans to reduce vehicle emissions (something which there is still a distinct lack of political will to achieve), and to increase cycling and walking. Put simply, we shouldn’t be burning wood for heat — and a ban on woodburning stoves seems a useful place to start.
“Woodburning stoves are starting to have a significant and identifiable impact on air quality in our cities”
Paul Testa Paul Testa is an architect and university lecturer. He is an advocate of low energy design and the Passivhaus standard.