Are wood burning stoves a step backwards for net zero?

Wood burners are increasingly popular in 2023  (CoolStays)
Wood burners are increasingly popular in 2023 (CoolStays)

In the coldest months of the year, who doesn’t dream of sipping hot chocolate in front of a log fire?

But with the ongoing energy crisis, coupled with cost of living challenges, it’s actually the search for cheaper alternatives to modern home heating that has caused a reported 60 per cent year-on-year increase in wood burner sales. Garden centres have been running out of logs; people who wouldn’t have thought to before have taken to collecting their own wood.

At a time of growing climate awareness - often highlighted by images of burning forests - heating our homes with trees might seem counter-intuitive. As a slightly conscience-stricken owner of such a stove, I recently spent some time digging into their impact, and it’s not as straightforward as you might think.

First, let’s start with costs. With the recent gas price rises, it might now cost as much as £2.76 an hour to run the average gas-powered central heating system. Depending on the type, electric-powered heating can cost more than double that. A log burner tends to heat a room or two rather than a whole house, but at around 63p per hour, it is an attractive option for many.

With energy prices expected to remain high for some time, it’s likely that many people could offset the upfront costs of a wood burner, which typically range between £500 and £3,000 to buy and install depending on the setup (of course many don’t have that upfront money to spare).

So for those able to install a wood burner, the cost-savings seem relatively clear, but how bad is burning wood for the planet? It remains an open debate.

Some claim that chopping down a tree for firewood is carbon neutral as the tree will only ever release the carbon it has absorbed over its lifetime, which would eventually have been released through decomposition if it had died naturally.

Another side to the argument, however, is that burning trees not only releases carbon prematurely but the reduction in the number of trees also means less carbon being removed from the atmosphere. More carbon released, less absorbed. While responsibly-managed woodlands exist - whereby a tree is replanted once cut down - it takes years for a sapling to reach the same level of carbon absorption as a mature tree (assuming it reaches full maturity before being harvested) so there is an overall deficit in the short-term.

Some might call out the carbon impact of the existing alternatives in their home - gas, electric or oil-powered heating systems - and suggest burning a ‘carbon neutral’ source of warmth like firewood is surely a better alternative than releasing carbon through the use of fossil fuels? The argument will rumble on.

One thing is conclusive: wood burners have a negative impact on air quality. Government data has backed this up: reports have said log burning releases small particle pollution, which can have a damaging impact on our health.

There are claims that there are less harmful alternatives, such as logs made from compressed used coffee grounds. Reports have said these release 75 per cent fewer particulates than their wood counterparts.

So, there are many aspects to consider when it comes to wood burners in the context of costs, the environment and our health. It’s another example of how surviving the current energy crisis might not always be conducive to our net zero goals.