What is the future for wood burning in London?

The burning of wood and other solid fuels in London has been regulated by legislation for 68 years following the introduction of the Clean Air Act 1956. This has helped to improve the cleanliness of the air that we breathe and to reduce the health impacts of air pollution. What are our next steps, and what is the future for wood in London?

Let’s start by looking at the fuels that are available for sale in England and may currently be in use in London.

  • Coal – The sale of traditional house coal has been prohibited In England since May 2023; could this happen for other solid fuels? The only types of coal now available for sale in England are anthracite, semi-anthracite, and low volatile steam coal. These types of coal are ‘authorised fuels’ and may be burned in an open fire or non-exempt multi-fuel stove in a smoke control area (SCA).
  • Manufactured solid fuels (MSF) – A manufactured solid fuel is made from coal, wood, plant-derived materials, waxes, or petroleum products with other ingredients.
    • These may be authorised for use in a smoke control area, and these will be clearly labelled on the packaging.
    • Some such as coffee, olive, and wine logs are exempt from this certification and labelling requirement.
  • Wood – It is only permissible for dry wood to be burned in a Defra exempt appliance, and even then it is only possible to burn the fuel that is permitted for that appliance (mostly dry wood logs or pellets depending on the appliance).

The Great Smog of 1952 led to the deaths of an estimated 4,000 people in London, although some modern estimates place the death toll at more than double this number. The first Clean Air Act of 1956 was passed in response to the Great Smog and introduced requirements for the use of ‘smokeless coal’ and a prohibition on the emission of dark smoke from chimneys.

The Clean Air Act was updated in 1993 and smoke control areas now cover most of London However, survey data suggest that there are still households that burn wood in open fires or non-exempt wood burning stoves despite this being prohibited by the Clean Air Act. Furthermore, the current regulatory environment allows the installation and use of exempt wood burners. These wood burning stoves emit less pollution than older stoves or open fires but they are still adding to the PM2.5 emissions in London, at a time when most, if not all homes in London are connected to lower emission energy sources such as electricity and mains gas.

The Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill, also known as Ella’s Law, is a Private Members’ Bill that was introduced to Parliament by Baroness Jenny Jones in May 2022 and seeks to establish the right to breathe clean air. This bill explicitly suggests placing restrictions on the use of wood-burning stoves in urban areas. The bill had its first reading on 31 January 2023 with the second planned for June 2024. Ella’s Law is named after Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah; the first person in England to have had air pollution listed as a cause of their death by a coroner, following her death in 2013 due to asthma exacerbated by air pollution.

Air pollution has been listed as the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with up to 36,000 deaths per year attributable to our long-term exposure to poor quality air, with one in ten of these deaths estimated to occur in London. Air pollution has gained prominence as a significant risk to health and, in 2022, the top five causes of death in England and Wales are all conditions which have been found to be associated to some degree with exposure to air pollution.

Wood burning contributes about 17% of the most hazardous type of air pollution – fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – in London, and it will be necessary for future legislation to consider options for reducing emissions from wood burning alongside all other emissions sources if we are to achieve the collective aim of protecting public health and preventing deaths linked to poor air quality.

With the growing body of evidence about the health harms of air pollution it seems possible that restrictions on all solid fuel burning may increase, especially in built up areas. The phasing out of the sales of house coal and wet wood has been important, as has the recent Air Quality Neutral London Plan Guidance, in paving the way for a transition away from higher-pollution forms of domestic heating.

Aside from the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill discussed above, there is also an All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution working to promote clean air and clean air legislation. The City of London Corporation and the 32 London boroughs, including the 19 that are members of this project, take responsibility for education and enforcement of the current Clean Air Act.

Groups and charities involved in the fight for cleaner air are conducting campaigns, research and lobbying around air pollution, including wood burning, such as:

Member London Boroughs