Open the papers this morning and you would think the government had just announced plans to slaughter the first-born. The cause of the outrage? The environment secretary has just said that the sale of coal and damp logs for burning in domestic properties is to be banned from next year. Apparently it is an attack on people who live in the countryside, and on the Tories’ new-found voters in the north of England – whom some Conservatives in the south still no doubt think keep coal in their baths. Maybe there are still a few coal-burners in the likes of Bolsover – although the business of that particular town was for many years producing Coalite, a smokeless fuel which it appears will not fall foul of the ban. Far more at risk of being inconvenienced will be middle-class Londoners with log-burners in their country cottages, and who have long been in the habit of sourcing fuel from some guy down the pub.
In which case I don’t think it will cause them too much inconvenience to buy some properly-seasoned, kiln-dried logs in future. Dried logs are not going to be banned, and will allow people to carry on using their wood burning-stoves – while avoiding smoking-out their neighbours. I live in the country and I can tell you, you don’t know how lucky you are to live in a smokeless zone. You don’t have to put up with clouds of acrid smoke from wood burners, open fires and Agas. First, a confession. I know how polluting it is to burn unseasoned wood because I’ve burned enough if it myself. Living with an open fire and damp logs is like smoking 80 Woodbines a day. How much fresher our living room is since we stopped burning wood altogether and fell back on our pretty clean-by-comparison oil-fired boilers.
Lovers of wood burners and open fires overlook the pollution they are causing because they have convinced themselves that they are doing the planet a favour. They are not burning fossil fuels and therefore they feel a sense of superiority over people with gas and oil central heating (even though, I’ve noticed, they tend still to be happy burning through industrial quantities of diesel for their 4x4s). Yes, there is an element of unjoined-up government in that for the past decade homeowners have been showered with subsidies for installing wood burners and biomass boilers. It has also thrown vast subsidies at power stations to burn wood imported from North America – an industry which on some measures is even worse for carbon dioxide emissions as burning coal. It is like the diesel scandal all over again – government encourages something on the grounds that it reduces carbon emissions, only belatedly to realise that the thing they have been encouraging causes far worse pollution in other respects.
But there is a difference: you can’t run a diesel car without diesel. You can, on the other hand, run a log-burner with properly seasoned logs. I can’t wait for the ban on horribly polluting solid fuels. My only regret is that the government is not banning bonfires at the same time. Do that and finally, we who live in the country will be able to breathe air as clean as those who live in smokeless zones.