Wood-burning stoves have been the subject of much controversy in recent months. Claims abound that they are pumping out dangerous levels of air pollution and should be banned outright. But how much truth is there to these assertions?

In this post, we’ll separate the facts from the fiction surrounding wood burners. Using scientific research and verified data, we’ll uncover the actual impacts of wood heating and dispel some stubborn myths. Whether you already have a stove or are considering installing one, making well-informed decisions is essential. Read on to learn the critical facts on wood burners.

Myth 1: Wood burners produce large amounts of harmful air pollution

It’s become a widespread belief that wood-burning stoves spew dangerous pollution into the air. Some claim that up to 17% of particulate emissions in cities like London originate from wood burners. However, a closer look shows these figures are wildly misleading.

That 17% includes all combustion, from open fires to large-scale biomass power stations. In reality, stoves produce just a tiny fraction of overall particulates. Modern wood-burning stoves combust wood extremely efficiently, emitting as little as 0.1g particulates per hour—just 1/30th of the 3g per hour limit for stoves.

Replacing an old open fireplace with a new wood stove reduces particulate pollution by a staggering 99.7%. The remaining 0.3% of emissions are negligible. Stoves require far less wood than inefficient open fires. So, the belief that wood burners create significant air pollution is a myth not backed by evidence. In fact, air pollution was reduced in 2022, despite a record number of stove sales.

In fact, many everyday household activities pump out far more dangerous particulates than operating a modern wood stove.

Cooking can produce up to 120μg/m3 of pollution – remaining elevated for hours. Blowing out candles on a birthday cake caused a 20-fold spike in particulates. And using an air fryer sent levels soaring above safe limits for over two hours afterwards.

Wood-burning stoves themselves resulted in barely any increase in pollution, even during refuelling. So, while open fires can cause poor air quality, modern stoves have only a tiny impact. Banning them would do little to improve air pollution overall. The real concern should be sources like cooking and scented candles.

Myth 2: Burning wood is not carbon-neutral

Another disputed claim is that burning wood is not carbon-neutral. The theory goes that burning wood releases CO2 locked up in trees, contributing to climate change. But this ignores the fundamental nature of the carbon cycle.

As trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. When those trees eventually die and decompose – standing or cut down – the same amount of CO2 is released back into the air. The same is true when wood is burned. The carbon stored inside trees is not somehow “new” carbon.

Wood’s carbon neutrality contrasts starkly with fossil fuels like gas, oil and coal. The carbon in these was absorbed from the atmosphere millions of years ago. Burning them now releases CO2 that would otherwise stay locked underground. This new influx of carbon is what drives climate change.

Of course, burning wood sustains a cycle of recaptured and released CO2 rather than removing it from the air long-term. However, wood remains the only renewable, carbon-neutral fuel source available. Replacing fossil fuel systems with wood heating is an eco-friendly move.

Myth 3: Harvesting firewood destroys forests

Some argue that the rising demand for wood fuel, especially in stoves, leads to deforestation and habitat destruction. However, most firewood in the UK comes from sustainable and renewable sources.

Much is wasted wood from existing forestry operations. Thinning out trees promotes forest health and growth. If leftover thinnings are not sold for firewood, they’ll still be disposed of via chipping or burning on-site. Using this wood sustainably for heating avoids wastage.

Critically, firewood mostly comes from deciduous woodlands rather than high-conservation old-growth forests. These renewable woods are cropped on rotation cycles of around 60 years. This allows sustainable harvesting while maintaining biodiversity and soil quality.

In contrast, unsustainable deforestation is driven by other demands, such as palm oil plantations and timber for paper and furniture. Focusing on well-managed firewood while ignoring these wider issues makes little sense. Sourced responsibly, firewood causes no major forest damage.

Myth 4: Wood heating is worse for air quality than gas

On the face of it, gas heating seems much cleaner than burning logs on the fire. And an old open fireplace indeed churns out smoke and particulates. But how do modern wood-burning stoves compare to gas appliances?

As discussed earlier, new stoves combust wood efficiently and with minimal emissions. Not only do they emit far less than open fires, but they can also be cleaner than gas heating. That’s because any use of fossil fuels still pumps out greenhouse gases, even if less visible at the point of use.

The CO2 emitted by gas appliances contributes significantly to climate change in a way wood heating does not. And worsening climate impacts lead to increased wildfires, a significant source of dangerous pollution. Even modest wood-burning stoves used for heating avoid tons of CO2 per year over gas.

Responsible wood heating creates less air pollution than gas when considering the entire lifecycle impacts. It also reduces reliance on imported fossil fuels and offers carbon-natural sustainable heating.

Myth 5: Heating with firewood is more expensive than gas or oil

A year’s supply of firewood certainly might seem more costly than gas or oil if you simply compare the rates per kWh of energy. But this overlooks the broader costs and benefits involved.

Savings become significant once you account for boiler servicing and higher ongoing gas costs. A wood-burning stove may need its chimney swept annually for around £50, but it requires little else in maintenance costs. You can also avoid pricey boiler replacements every 10–15 years.

For many with access to rural woodlands, firewood is free. Fallen trees and thinnings are often given away or cheap to buy locally. Heating a 3-bed house solely by firewood can cost under £200 annually. Try finding gas or oil for that price.

The expense myth also ignores the moral savings of switching from fossil fuels. Wood heating avoids lining the pockets of environmentally destructive companies, and being self-reliant on fuel brings priceless peace of mind against volatile global markets.

Myth 6: Gas heating is cleaner than wood-burning stoves

Many assume piped gas must be the greenest heating option short of electricity. It burns cleanly and is less polluting than oil or coal at the point of use. But as a fossil fuel, how clean is gas compared to wood?

As already discussed, responsible wood heating can reduce overall pollution versus gas. But more crucially, it eliminates greenhouse gas emissions. The average UK home emits 6 tonnes of CO2 from gas heating annually.

Replacing gas with a wood stove cuts out this massive carbon footprint. Yes, wood also emits CO2 when burned. However, this balances the CO2 absorbed in tree growth, avoiding the contribution of new carbon to the climate system.

No matter how high-tech the gas boiler is, it still dumps CO2 from fossil-origin into the air. Extracting and transporting natural gas causes substantial methane leaks, amplifying its climate impact. Regarding carbon emissions, wood is far cleaner than so-called “green gas.”

Myth 7: Wood-burning stoves cause high indoor air pollution

Research has indicated that the pollutants inside homes with wood-burning stoves are up to three times higher than in homes without. Understandably, this has stoked fears over the health impact of wood heating.

However, other studies have shown that this effect is massively overstated. Earlier research was flawed because it used only one air quality monitor per house. Background pollution from kitchens was not properly excluded, nor were impacts on air circulation from operating the stove itself.

In reality, correctly installed modern stoves do not significantly decrease indoor air quality. Cooking food, lighting scented candles, and other activities produce higher particulate levels in any home. Even just a few minutes of air-frying sausages produce extreme indoor pollution far above any wood-burning stove.

Yes, an old open fireplace can cause poor indoor air quality. But new stoves meeting the latest emissions standards have minimal effects on indoor pollution. Any small increase in particulates is a tiny price to pay for sustainable, low-carbon heating. Installed safely, wood-burning stoves present no meaningful indoor air quality risk.

There are undoubtedly meaningful discussions about wood as a heating fuel in the 21st century. And no energy source today is without complex pros and cons to weigh up. But much of the debate around wood burners has been clouded by myth and misinformation.

The truth is that modern wood-burning stoves cause negligible levels of outdoor and indoor air pollution. Their carbon emissions and forest impacts are preferable to continued reliance on fossil fuels. Firewood remains a renewable, sustainable, and cost-effective heating solution.

Next time you hear the media panic about toxic wood burners, look closely at the facts. Wood heating is not flawless, but it offers major advantages over gas, oil, and coal. With sensible regulation and sustainable sourcing, it can justifiably play a strong role in a low-carbon future.