On a cold winter’s day, there is nothing better than curling up in front of a glowing, wood-burning fire.
Humans have enjoyed the fire for a long time, and it continues to be so popular that even Netflix has an option for a cozy fire to be displayed on your screen.
Our adoration for wood fires has remained prominent in the modern age despite advances in heating technology.
The US alone has an estimated 17.5 million fireplaces and 10.1 million woodstoves. Considering that wood is a natural resource, it would be easy to assume that this energy or heat source is better than burning fossil fuels.
There is a dependence on fossil fuels, but is using wood the answer to our problems? How environmentally friendly is the practice of burning wood? Continue reading to find out!
How is Burning Wood Bad for the Environment?
There have been some interesting reasons why burning wood could be good for the environment, but unfortunately, there is more to consider within these positive claims.
There are many negative effects on the environment when the wood is burnt, and it may not be the answer to the search for a clean, renewable energy source.
1. Climate Change
There is currently more CO2 in our atmosphere than at any other time in human history, and in order to hit the target of limiting the rise of global temperatures to 1.5C, we need to act fast as it is predicted we could reach this figure in 20 years time.
Climate change is an important consideration when looking into the practice of burning wood, and whether this will contribute to increasing CO2 levels and rising temperatures.
2. Trees for Fuel are Not as Carbon Neutral as we Think
There is the logic behind trees being carbon neutral, as it makes sense they would absorb as much carbon as they then release through decomposition. It is when we look at this on a large scale that things get less positive.
Research has shown that a wood-fired power plant will emit more greenhouse gases than a coal power plant, for the first 50 years at least.
There is a lag between the amount of carbon that is stored by trees, and the amount released because of human energy needs. This often results in humans using more trees for wood than are being replanted.
There are many factors at play, including what species of trees are used, as some can take longer to grow or absorb more carbon. If a certain type of tree is being cut down and replaced with one that is less efficient at storing carbon or might take less time to grow, then this is no longer carbon neutral.
Wood often has a high-water content and therefore extra energy is needed to boil off this water, to make the combustion more efficient. This step requires the use of even more energy, adding to the emissions released to create this fuel.
There would need to be research looking at the carbon emission impact of burning trees over at least a 100-year period before we can look to this product as a renewable option for energy.
3. Burning Wood Leads to Environmental Pollution
When wood burns, there is always some incomplete combustion of the material. This results in fine particulate matter forming, which includes many toxic chemicals that are then released into the air. This is bad for people and wildlife alike, as it can cause illness in the respiratory system and long-term negative effects as it stores within our organs.
In winter, one-third of particulate matter pollution is from burning wood; this can be close to 90% in some areas. This is stifled within the home, as ventilation is often poor even in the most modern buildings, and cold weather causes these chemicals to linger lower in the atmosphere and within the air, we breathe.
Burning wood, therefore, causes environmental pollution on a large scale. In some cases, this has been found to be three times the amount of particulate matter released with road traffic.
Harvesting wood for fuel has been shown to be a leading driver of deforestation. This is because of the high demand for this material, and poor measures are being put in place to ensure sustainability practices are followed.
At least 35% of wood harvesting is already unsustainable. This has even more dire effects on specific countries in Southeast Asia and South America, where land is being cleared at an alarming rate.
The number of our global energy needs could lead to an even bigger increase in deforestation, particularly when you consider that wood-burning practices are much less energy efficient than stoves or other appliances.
Can Burning Wood be Good for the Environment?
1. Wood is a Renewable Source of Energy
Trees are a natural, renewable source that grows across the world. They use energy from the sun to grow, storing carbon, which can be used to burn.
Trees act like long-term battery storage for direct solar energy, which we can eventually harvest to use in energy production. The idea is that trees can be grown and cut down to be used for fuel, and then we can replace those trees by planting new ones to continue to cycle.
The term renewable means this process can continue without us depleting the resource, similar to solar, wind and hydro. This is a big positive for the environment, as burning wood promotes a shift away from non-renewable sources like fossil fuels.
It is also less intensive to harvest wood than the practices used to get gas and oil, which are often disruptive and harmful to the environment.
2. Burning Wood is Carbon Neutral
To understand this concept, it is key to have an idea of how trees grow. To put it simply, trees use sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to create the energy needed to grow, with this chemical reaction resulting in oxygen being released as a by-product.
Carbon dioxide is stored within plant material, making trees an important factor in the fight against climate change; one adult tree can store 48 pounds of carbon in one year. This carbon is only released once the tree either decomposes or is burnt, which effectively means it is a neutral equation.
The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed and stored by the trees is equal to the amount of carbon released when the wood is burnt, which makes this a more environmentally friendly option than fossil fuels.
The idea is that if you burn wood; it releases the same amount of carbon as if you allowed it to rot naturally. This means that if we ensure that the practice of harvesting wood is sustainable and includes a long-term vision for tree growth, then it will not increase the amount of carbon being released into the environment.
3. Wood can be Sourced Locally and Recycled
In almost every environment across the planet, there are trees. It is a fuel that can be sourced locally and grown independently, providing freedom for many people.
There are many benefits to consider with a fuel that is sourced locally, most importantly for the environment, this includes a reduction in transport and therefore the energy needed to do this.
Fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil are procured from certain locations and then must be transported across the world. One shocking fact is that 40% of the cargo on shipping containers are fossil fuels, highlighting the added environmental damage they cause.
Wood can be grown locally, and even in your backyard if for personal use, which is certainly a benefit to the environment.
Why do People Burn Wood?
Wood is burnt for large-scale, commercial biomass energy production as it offers a readily available fossil fuel alternative.
Burning wood is also a popular practice for personal use, from decorative wood fires to a vital aspect of heating and cooking in many countries.
People have had a long-standing relationship with using wood as a source of heat, and now energy.
So, What is the Outcome – is Using Wood as Fuel, Good or Bad?
Ultimately, anything people do on a large scale ends up not being good for the environment. The most positive form of burning wood would be local, small-scale wood burning.
However, it would be important to source locally, ensure a low moisture content, and support reforestation by only choosing sustainable wood. Landfilled wood produces methane due to incomplete decomposition, so you can also utilize recycled wood.
The overarching message is that burning wood is not good for the environment. This is because it is not as carbon neutral as we previously thought and there could be catastrophic emissions due to misunderstandings of carbon storage.
It also causes air pollution, at a much higher rate than road traffic, which leads to illnesses and negative impacts on the environment.
The forests are already being cleared for other human activity, and wood fuel causes this to be extended even further, with little guarantee that these areas will be reforested.
Related content: Are Gas Stoves Bad for the Environment?
Did you find this green article helpful? If so, share it with your friends and colleagues!