Wood burning stove: good or bad?

Are wood burning stoves environmentally friendly?

A simple search on Google asking this question will often imply that wood burners are beneficial to the environment. For example see this search result:Are wood burning stoves environmentally friendly

Note that two of those search results are from stove sellers so perhaps we need to look a bit further. Even the site which is not selling appears to have some caveats in that it depends on the type of wood you burn. So although burning wood may be better than burning coal, there is a lot to consider.

Carbon neutral?

The main argument in favour is that the wood burning is carbon neutral. In theory it can be if you assume that because trees absorb carbon dioxide during their life, and this same amount is then returned to the atmosphere when the wood is burned. If we assume that woodland management is necessary and that all felled or fallen timber can be used, ideally while staying local, then the carbon footprint can be almost neutral. So sourcing locally is much better than buying from a supermarket where wood has to be delivered. However even with wood sourced locally, a lot of woodland management these days requires the use of machinery which, in woodlands, is more likely to be petrol driven chainsaws than electric from renewable sources.

In 2019, the UK was the second biggest net importer of forest products in the world. In 2020 we imported £7.5 billion worth of wood products, including 9.1 million tonnes of wood pellets. So in some cases we aren’t just talking about a (diesel) truck delivering your logs from Romsey, or Waitrose getting logs delivered from Nottingham.

The only truly situation where burning wood is carbon neutral is if you gather fallen branches or fell a tree with an axe) and burn it without transporting it anywhere. This means that in urban and suburban areas it is unlikely that very much carbon neutral wood burning can occur.

We also need to consider that in order to burn properly wood must be seasoned, so that it is dried either naturally by air or in a kiln. Recently felled wood contains a lot of moisture which causes it to burn at a lower temperature and causes more pollution (see below). Very often the kiln drying process may involve burning gas.

However the carbon neutral argument has still prevailed. After all there is a carbon footprint involved with solar panel manufacture and installation as well as other supposedly eco-friendly forms of heating such as heat pumps.

However the other side of the story is definitely something has no positive sides to it.


Burning wood can release harmful particulate matter and other pollutants into the air, contributing to air pollution and potentially harmful health effects. In urban and suburban areas this is obviously more concentred than rural areas where it can be argued that this is less of a problem.

When it comes to particulate matter specifically from burning wood, the particulates released into the air can include fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and coarse particulate matter (PM10), which are associated with similar health risks as described in my previous response. However, wood smoke particulates can also contain additional harmful substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can have specific health risks. These include respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, and can also exacerbate pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Additionally, exposure to wood smoke particulates has been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. (Source: Openai – to be verified)

Is there no  good news if we already have a wood burning stove?

It could be argued that the negative impact is reduced if:

  • Your stove is a modern one and so conforms to standards that should mean it is more efficient.
  • You always use natural seasoned wood and not treated lumber or glued laminates
  • You use it rarely, e.g. for Christmas, birthdays and bah mitzvahs etc.
  • You have it swept and checked regularly
  • You only burn at recommended temperatures. (A simple and cheap wood stove thermometer is. recorded for this). Too cold and more particulates (some of which contain creosote) are related. Too hot and the fire is inefficient.

However these measures just reduce the negative impact and eradicate the pollution issue. IronicallyIn fact it now seems that stove manufacturers are rubbing their hands in glee at the recent bad press because they use it to get you to ditch your old stove and buy the latest more efficient model.

The Bio-Ethanol solution

Yes there is a potentially good solution in the form of bioethanol, which is a renewable fuel that is produced from crops such as corn, sugarcane, and wheat, and agricultural waste. You can get a stove designed specifically to burn bioethanol or just buy a burner to fit into an existing wood burning stove. Note that in this case you will need to either block off the flue or remove the door. Depending on the size however it is likely to put out less heat than your wood burner. The cost may be higher than burning wood, but still considerably lower than electricity. More info from Homebuilding.co.uk.

Bioethanol is created through a process of fermentation, which involves breaking down the sugars in the plant material with the help of enzymes and yeast. The resulting ethanol can be used as a fuel for vehicles, as a fuel additive to gasoline, or as a fuel for heating and electricity generation.

It is considered to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fossil fuels because it emits less greenhouse gases when burned. It is also a renewable resource, as it can be continually produced from crops and other organic materials.

However, there are also concerns about the land use and energy inputs required for the production of bioethanol, as well as potential impacts on food prices and availability.

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