Coal

Government to crack down on coal and wet wood

Breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that the air you breathe here in the UK is cleaner than it has been for much of the last few centuries.

The advent of the Industrial Revolution locked the UK and the rest of the world into a resource-intense stage of development, in which most of the energy expended was through the burning of wood and coal. As we know, coal and types of wood can produce harmful pollutants when burnt.

Now, in a bid to ensure that our air can stay cleaner for longer, the burning of traditional house coal and wet wood will be rendered unlawful by the government, which is urging households to make the switch towards dry wood and manufactured solid fuels instead. Why is this happening, and what does it mean for our air?

This legislation marks the latest step in delivering on the challenges we set ourselves in our Clean Air Strategy, making sure that both we and future generations can breathe cleaner air

– Rebecca Pow, Environment Minister

Getting choked up

Formed from the fossilised remnants of ancient forests, much of the coal which has been extracted from below the earth’s surface has been burnt in a domestic setting. While it may have kept generations of Britons warm, tossing another lump of coal on the fireplace, it all came at a cost to the environment.

That’s because house coal that we’re accustomed to is a major source of PM2.5, a form of inhalable particulate matter measuring at a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less. When exposed to PM2.5, people experience irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Significant damage can be done if the particles irritate the lungs on a regular basis, or enter the bloodstream.

Wet wood is also a major scourge in the league of combustible fuels. Often known as unseasoned or green wood, wet wood is a form of wood which retains moisture. When burnt, wet wood produces far more PM2.5 than if it had been seasoned. This seasoning, which reduces the polluting nature of wood, is only made possible by drying out it to achieve a moisture content of 20 per cent or less.

A major shakeup

When you think of air pollution in England, there’s a good chance you might be reminded of the infamous chimney sweepers from the Victorian Era, who climbed chimneys in order to brush away the piles of soot which built up over time.

The new restrictions on house coal and wet wood are some of the first major pieces of clean air-related legislation being proposed by the government since the 1950s, when a deadly smog descended upon London, choking the city for many days and nights, known as the Great Smog of 1952. The Clean Air Act 1956 helped legislate to help shift households, businesses and factories towards smokeless fuels and lower emissions.

The move to limit the use of PM2.5-producing fuels stems from an increase in the polluting effect of log burners in recent years. While just eight per cent of homes still use them, they disproportionately contribute to most of the particulate pollution in the UK.

In exchange for wet wood and traditional house coal, consumers are being urged to switch to verifiably low-sulphur solid fuels and seasoned wood products. Using more of the latter as opposed to wet wood is estimated reduce emissions by up to 50 per cent, while generating greater heat, according to Defra, the government department responsible for environmental protection.

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