Cheaper, healthier, and cleaner fuels are available, so people will still be able to enjoy their open fires and wood-burning stoves once the changes come into effect.
At the Budget, the Government should provide additional financial support to people in rural areas, like my constituency, so that they can cut their heating bills by installing insulation and make their heating systems greener.
Surprisingly, the burning of wood and coal is the single biggest source of the most harmful type of air pollution, fine particulate matter (PM2.5). It contributes more emissions than industry and road transport combined.
Public Health England estimates that the health impact from long-term exposure to particulate pollution is equivalent to 29,000 deaths each year. Not only does air pollution make people unwell and cause suffering, but it increases costs and puts pressure on the NHS too. Public Health England warns that the costs of air pollution to society could exceed £5.1bn by 2035 if nothing is done.
Through the groundbreaking Environment Bill, which has started its passage through Parliament earlier this week, the Government will set a new legally-binding target for PM2.5, recognising its uniquely dangerous effect on our health. But the easy part is setting the target. The hard part is taking action to cut emissions.
There are a number of ways in which particulate emissions from solid fuel burning can be reduced. Upgrading an open fire or an old stove to a modern, efficient stove is one option.
I was pleased that the Government’s Clean Air Strategy last year committed to requiring new stoves to have stronger efficiency standards from 2022. Another option is to ensure that fuel vendors only sell clean fuels. Wet wood emits twice as many particulates as dry, seasoned wood. And house coal has higher emissions than manufactured, ‘smokeless’ fuels such as charcoal or briquettes.
House coal is a much less energy-dense fuel, meaning that switching away from coal to a smokeless fuel will actually also save people money, as they will need to use less of it.
Conservative governments have a long track-record of intervening in markets to tackle harmful fuels and protect people’s health. Leaded petrol is one example, which is now known to have damaged between five and 10 per cent of children’s brains.
It was under Margaret Thatcher that the Government first committed to phase this out. Even further back, it was a Conservative Government that passed the 1956 Clean Air Act, which banned the burning of harmful fuels inside our most polluted cities following the 1952 Great Smog, which killed 12,000 people and hospitalised a further 150,000 in just one winter.
It’s important to acknowledge that the ban on house coal and wet wood will have an impact on rural communities that are not connected to the gas grid, like those in my constituency some of whom rely on home fires for heating. Therefore, alongside phasing out house coal and wet wood, we should enable more people in rural areas to upgrade their home heating system. At the upcoming Budget, the Government should allocate funding to help off-gas-grid households install insulation and switch to green forms of heating, such as heat pumps and biomass boilers. This would help people cut their energy bills and their carbon emissions at the same time.
Rural homes often have some of the highest carbon heating systems. They also have some of the coldest and draughtiest homes. Yet despite the energy saving potential of low-carbon heating technologies and insulation, high upfront cost is often a barrier to rural residents upgrading their homes. They should therefore be a priority for Government support.
Ending coal and wet wood burning will improve people’s health in the short-term by tackling the single largest source of particulate pollution.
The Government must now support people to go further and to swap their solid fuel heating systems for cleaner, greener alternatives, so that rural homes can play their part in delivering net-zero.
With the right set of incentives, I believe that we can make houses warmer, healthier and cheaper to run, while still enabling people to enjoy a cosy evening by the fire.
Kevin Hollinrake is the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton.