Is our long love affair with the fireplace bad news for the planet?

Chris Bowlby examines Britain's attachment to the fireplace and its impact on the climate

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In the debate over how to reduce our carbon emissions, much is made of areas like transport and power generation. But energy use in the home – which also has a substantial impact on emissions – has received less attention in policy-making and public debate. And there may be good historical reasons for this.

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Previous attempts to reduce our energy use at home reveal a fascinating mix of factors – from Victorian scare stories to the public’s deep-seated fear of the unknown – that make pushing through environmental changes such an arduous task.

Dr Stephen Mosley of Leeds Metropolitan University has researched widely in the history of air pollution in Britain, and one of his central themes is the intense British relationship with the domestic coal fire.

The noxious environment of Britain’s urban centres wasn’t just caused by industry, but also by domestic heating. Yet while factory chimneys became symbols of pollution, coal fires were little blamed. The ‘homely hearth’, notes Dr Mosley, was the centrepiece of most homes, “the hub around which family life revolved”. Or as a German diplomat put it in 1904: “The fireplace is the domestic altar before which, daily and hourly, he sacrifices to the household gods. This is why the English have never thought, and will never think, of relinquishing the fireplace.”

So just as today’s governments are reluctant to declare war on the car for environmental reasons, so Victorian and Edwardian governments, says Dr Mosley, “similarly feared the repercussions of passing legislation that interfered with the citizen’s freedom to enjoy the hugely popular institution of the open coal fire”.

Popular Victorian scientific theories simply reinforced our attachment to the fi replace. ‘Re-breathed air’ in occupied rooms was assumed by many to contain putrefying ‘animal refuse matter’, a kind of organic poison. The fi replace, with its brisk ventilation, was seen as an often include provision for a “woodburning stove”.

So we are left today with much housing stock that is highly energy  inefficient, as small numbers of solar panels are stuck on draughty Victorian and Edwardian buildings. And many of their occupants remain reluctant to accept official advice on saving energy and using renewable sources – and question the science on which such advice is based.

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Climate change campaigners now face similar challenges to those who led the crusade against coal fire pollution. A lesson from history, suggests Stephen Mosley, is that “persuasion doesn’t always work”. In the battle for what we might call hearths and minds, it is carbon more than cleaner energy that has truly fired the domestic imagination.