Coal and wet wood burning: how will UK restrictions work?

Jonathan Watts
Coal and wet wood burning: how will UK restrictions work?. Everything you need to know about the phasing out of the polluting domestic fuels

From next year, the UK will phase out sales of the most polluting domestic fuels: coal and wet wood. What will this mean for households, the environment and the traditional roaring open fire?

Everyone knows coal, but what is wet wood?

As the name suggests, this is a type of fuel – usually in the form of undried fuel logs – with a moisture content of at least 20% that is burned in stoves and fireplaces. Also known as green or unseasoned wood, it is cheap and widely available in DIY or garden centres, where it is usually sold in sacks or nets. An estimated 2.5m homes in the UK rely on this or coal for heating.

Why is the government stopping sales of it?

The moisture in the wood is a vector for pollutants that can cause breathing problems, heart ailments and lung cancer. When burned, damp wood produces more smoke than dry logs. This includes tiny particulates known as PM2.5 that are more harmful than bigger flakes of soot because they can penetrate deep into the respiratory system and bloodstream. Government figures show coal and wet wood is responsible for 38% of PM2.5 pollution in the UK, three times as much as road transport.

Why now?

Action is long overdue. Even in London, which has had smoke control areas for more than 60 years, wood burning accounts for up to 31% of PM2.5, according to a study by King’s College. The mayor’s office says almost 8 million residents of the city live in places where this form of air pollution exceeds World Health Organization guidelines by at least 50%. At least a dozen other towns and cities, including Scunthorpe, Manchester, Swansea and Gillingham, have even higher levels of pollution.

Does this mark the end of the cosy country hearth and the cool urban stove?

Not yet. The restrictions are limited and will be phased in over several years. Even after they come into full effect, fire lovers will still be able to collect their own kindling and branches and buy seasoned or kiln-dried logs (as long as they have moisture levels below 20%). This fuel is more expensive, but burns more efficiently and more cleanly, which means more heat, lower flue maintenance costs and fewer health concerns. It is also easier to light and produces a satisfying crackle rather than a sputtering hiss.

Will there be a social impact?

Yes. This change means some people may have to pay more to heat their homes. Worst affected are likely to be former coalmining communities where sales of relatively cheap local supplies will be prohibited, and low-income residents in the countryside. Even before the ban comes into effect, rural dwellers are already 55% more likely to suffer fuel poverty. The government says this problem is overstated because coal can be replaced by manufactured solid fuels that are more economical and have lower levels of sulphur and other pollutants.

Will it make a difference to air quality?

These measures will help, but they should only be a start. The block on sales of coal and wet wood will reduce one major source of harmful air pollution, but there are others including cars, trucks, manufacturing and construction. Tighter controls on vehicle and factory emissions will be necessary if the government is serious about reducing cases of childhood asthma and the sometimes fatal long-term heart and lung problems related to PM2.5. A ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars will not be put in place until 2035. The new policy’s effectiveness will also depend on implementation and closing potential loopholes such as the clause that allows bulk purchases (two cubic metres or more) of wet wood as long as it is sold with advice on how to dry it.

Will this have a positive climate impact?

Very little, at least in the short term when people are likely to switch to dry wood or manufactured smokeless fuels. Looking further ahead, the extra cost of that fuel might encourage more house owners to consider making their homes more energy efficient, which would be help to reduce emissions. UK buildings have one of the worst records in Europe when it comes to retaining heat.

Switching to lower-carbon or renewable energy, such as ground-source heat pumps, would make an even bigger difference, but this would require infrastructure investment and incentives from the government to make the alternatives affordable and widely available. If the UK wants to have a double-win on air pollution and climate, another option would be action on transport, including tighter controls on car emissions, more investment in public transit, greater support for electric vehicles and a levy on aviation fuel (which is currently tax-free). Compared with that, the restrictions on domestic coal use and wet wood are a drop in the ocean.