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Health impacts of wood burning cost EU and UK €17 billion a year

Wood-based home appliances are responsible for 63 per cent of the health costs from air pollution related to heating and cooking in homes in the European Union and UK

Health 30 March 2022

Woman putting a well dried log into a glowing wood burning stove.

A wood-burning stove

lucentius/Getty Images

Wood-burning appliances in people’s homes are a major source of damaging air pollution in the European Union and the UK, responsible for €17 billion a year in health-related costs, a study has found.

Economist Marisa Korteland and her colleagues at the Netherlands-based consultancy firm CE Delft calculated how much air pollution is produced by heating and cooking in homes based on emissions data from Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office. They then estimated the health consequences based on a 2013 study by the World Health Organization. The health costs include both direct spending on healthcare and the social costs of higher illness rates and earlier deaths.

“It’s really important to take the health impacts of air pollution into account,” says Korteland. Policy-makers don’t usually do this because no economic value is placed on it, she says.

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According to the study, air pollution from fossil fuels and wood burned in homes for heating or cooking results in €27 billion of health-related costs a year in the EU and UK. That is nearly as much as air pollution from residential transport, which causes €36 billion in health-related costs a year.

Wood-based home appliances are responsible for 63 per cent of the €27 billion, because burning wood has high health costs relative to the energy it generates. In the UK, for instance, wood stoves provide just 11 per cent of the final energy used for heating and cooking, but cause 54 per cent of health-related costs, the study found.

The average health costs from using a wood stove for a year are €750 per household, says Korteland, compared with €210 from driving a diesel car and €30 from a gas boiler.

If countries swapped stoves and boilers for heat pumps powered by electricity from non-biomass and non-fossil fuel sources, the health-related costs from air pollution from heating could be reduced to zero, the study says.

What’s more, the calculated costs are a considerable underestimate, the team thinks, because they don’t consider indoor air pollution.

Air pollution levels can be extremely high inside homes where wood or fossil fuel appliances are used. However, because levels vary considerably – depending on factors such as how well homes are ventilated, how often people cook and so on – the team decided there wasn’t enough data to come up with a reliable estimate.

Korteland’s team was commissioned to do the study by the European Public Health Alliance, an umbrella group representing many health-related charities, patient groups and health professionals.

The EU has been encouraging wood burning as a way to reduce emissions, with more than 60 per cent of its renewable energy coming from biomass. Critics say biomass burning on this scale isn’t sustainable and is harming biodiversity globally.

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