English Wet Wood & Coal Burning ban set for 2023
The government has announced that sales of coal and “wet wood” are to be phased out in England in an effort to reduce air pollution. Selectra looks at what this will mean for you and your fireplace.
New restrictions on coal and wood
To ensure cleaner air and protect public health the UK government has announced a number of changes to the availability of traditional fuels.
The move could also encourage households to move to greener forms of energy.
From February 2021 bags of bituminous house coal in quantities of less than two cubic meters will be banned from sale.
Two years later, from February 2023, you will no longer be able to get loose coal delivered to your home by a coal merchant.
The 2021 deadline will also apply to sales of “wet wood”, so-called because it hasn’t been dried and contains at least 20% moisture.
This type of fuel is inefficient, providing much less heat while emitting double the amount of smoke produced by burning dry wood.
Sometimes known as green or unseasoned wood, these logs are currently sold in sacks or nets at garden centers, supermarkets and DIY stores.
Roughly 2.5m households in the UK use coal or wet wood for heating, although the ban will apply only to England for the moment.
The gradual implementation is intended to give both suppliers and customers a chance to use up existing supplies and find cleaner alternatives such as dry wood or coal alternatives, called manufactured solid fuels (MSFs).
The government regulations around these MSFs are also being tightened up from February 2021.
Manufacturers will have to limit the amount of sulphur they contain and make sure they only produce a small amount of smoke if they wish to keep selling their fuel to the public.
Environment Secretary George Eustice, said the government’s ban would “play a part in improving the health of millions of people.”
“This is the latest step in delivering on the challenge we set ourselves in our world-leading Clean Air Strategy,” he said.
“We will continue to be ambitious and innovative in tackling air pollution from all sources as we work towards our goal to halve the harm to human health from air pollution by 2030.”
Why are wet wood and coal harmful to health?
Burning coal and wood in stoves and hearths releases hazardous particulate matter (PM), specifically PM2.5.
This is composed of microscopic particles of solid matter that gets suspended in the air, both inside your home and in the atmosphere outside.
PM2.5 has been labelled by the World Health Organisation as the most dangerous air pollutant for human health.
The particles are less than 2.5 micrometers, hence the name. That’s about 3% the diameter of a human hair, meaning they can only be seen with an electron microscope.
Because of their small size, they can easily cross into your bloodstream after being inhaled into your lungs.
Medical research shows a strong connection between exposure to PM2.5 particles and heart disease, lung disease, asthma, heart attack, birth defects and premature death.
Children, the elderly and those with existing heart or lung conditions are especially vulnerable to harm from the particulates.
While some of this material comes from uncontrollable natural processes, such as volcanoes and dust storms, there are many artificial sources including power plants and transport which we can do something about.
Coal and wood burning in fires is responsible for around 40% of national PM2.5 emissions, contributing twice as much as industry and three times as much as road transport, making the fuels the largest single source in the UK, which is why the government has decided to act.
Medical experts have hailed the new rules as a step forward.
The Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on air quality Professor Stephen Holgate said the government should do “everything it can to improve the air we all breathe.”
“Inhaling combustion particles from any source is harmful, but more so than ever when it’s directly within your home,” he said.
“Burning coal for heat and power has to stop and strong guidance is needed to insist that if wood is burnt in approved stoves, it is non-contaminated and dry.”
John Maingay, director of policy and influencing at the British Heart Foundation, called the new regulations “a welcome move from a Government showing its ambition and commitment to tackling air pollution.”
“However, we must not stop there. Air pollution is a major public health challenge, and it requires an urgent and bold response,” he said.
The UK’s Clean Air Strategy, held up by the World Health Organisation as “an example for the rest of the world to follow”, will also involve future strategies to reduce other harmful pollutants including sulphur dioxide and ammonia.
Will the ban on coal and wet wood make my energy bills rise?
Improving people’s health is of course a worthy goal, but the government’s move is bound to raise concern among the public.
With millions of homes relying on coal and wet wood as a cheap fuel source for heat, many have questioned the prohibition’s impact on those on low incomes.
This is especially true in rural areas where 55% of households are more likely to experience fuel poverty.
The government said its research found the price of manufactured solid fuels differs widely across the country compared to coal and wet wood.
However, despite potentially higher prices per unit, the alternative fuels actually provide more energy for your money in the longer term according to the government, so you should not see an increase in your overall fuel costs.
Moreover, as everyone currently burning coal and wet wood switches, economies of scale should see the price of manufactured solid fuels drop over time.
Is the coal and wet wood ban the beginning of the end of evenings in front of a cosy fireplace?
People will still be free to gather their own kindling and to buy dry wood and there are some other exemptions to the new policy.
In the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, a small group of people called “freeminers” have enjoyed the right to mine and sell coal from personal plots since medieval times.
Due to the historical and cultural importance of this tradition, and because of the small amounts of coal produced, freeminers are excluded from the new rules.
Another exception is that wet wood will still be available to buy in quantities of two cubic meters or more.
The reasoning behind this is that wood bought in small amounts is likely to be used more or less immediately, while people or businesses are probably purchasing wet wood in bulk with the intention of drying it themselves.
The new regulations state that wet wood sold in bulk like this must come with advice on how to dry it to make it suitable for burning.
Will the ban on coal and wet wood help tackle climate change?
Although the ban will somewhat aid in the government’s drive to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, the immediate difference it makes is likely to be marginal.
However, the changeover may prompt householders to invest in making their houses and flats more energy efficient such as by installing insulation along with double or triple glazing. UK homes are currently some of the least efficient in Europe when it comes to retaining heat.
An increase in people moving to renewable or lower-carbon energy could be another consequence of the new rules.
While not renewable, gas boilers are a cheaper and lower-carbon way to heat your home compared to open fires or or boilers fed by oil, wood, pellets or coal.
One of the greenest options is probably ground-source heat pumps, although the initial investment may be too high for many at the moment.
Tackling air pollution and the climate emergency will need a lot more than this ban.
A massive investment in public transport, measures to accelerate the switch to electric vehicles and reduction in emissions across industry will also be required to meet these twin challenges.