Blog Post

London’s other pollution problem – wood burners

Oriane Nermond explores wood burning stoves’ contribution to London’s air pollution and why a ban is not a simple solution.

Improving London’s air quality is one of the city’s biggest political issues. The Mayor’s plan to expand the Ultra-Low Emission Zone has sparked fierce opposition.

But alongside cars, there’s another unlikely source of pollution in London – wood burners.

In the last decade, air pollution from wood burning has doubled across the UK. While other sources of pollution have fallen and are expected to fall further, domestic wood burning stoves have become one of the main contributors of air pollution in London.

Why are wood burners a problem?

Wood burning emits small particles named Particulate Matter (PM). These toxic particles can be responsible for many respiratory problems and other illnesses, including dementia.

Domestic woodburning stoves are believed to cause £1bn a year of health costs. Vulnerable groups, including children and older Londoners, are particularly at risk when exposed to high levels of air pollution.

They are in effect banned in new homes. But what can be done about stoves in existing homes?

Some people who burn wood have little choice – either because they have no other source of heating, or because it is cheaper than other sources.

But census data reveals that only 400 households in London said wood is their only heating source. For most people in London, the choice to use a wood burner is an aesthetic choice.

How can we reduce emissions form wood burners in London?

We might start by raising people’s awareness of the negative impacts of wood burners.

In 2018, the GLA spent £20,000 on an information campaign to encourage people to switch  to a less polluting, eco-design woodburning stove. But is this enough to reduce the air pollution given these stoves still produce 450 times more pollution than gas heating?

While awareness of the dangers of wood burners is increasing, it’s not clear who is responsible for the problem. There are no straightforward policy solutions.

Most Londoners support a complete ban on domestic wood burners. But even if a ban were to be introduced, how would it be enforced?

People already face a £300 fine for disregarding local rules banning people from burning wood at home. But English councils have issued only 17 fines over the past six years – a very low figure in comparison with the number of complaints.

Government say that local authorities need to be enforcing the rules better, but local authorities say that they don’t have the resources for this. If we’re going to reduce emissions, it needs to be clear where the responsibility for regulation lies. And we need to ensure the enforcement powers are in place.

Help Centre for London find solutions

So, what can be done? The policy solutions aren’t obvious. But a discussion with policy experts will help shed light on possible ways forward.

We’d like to organise a roundtable to discuss how we can reduce the use of domestic wood burners in London. If this is something you’d be interested in taking part in or are able to support, please get in touch with us.