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.
When wood is burnt, there are many adverse effects on the environment, and it may not be the answer to the search for a clean, renewable energy source.
There is currently more CO2 in our atmosphere than at any other time in human history, and 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.
Climate change is an important consideration when considering the practice of burning wood and whether this will contribute to increasing CO2 levels and rising temperatures.
Trees for Fuel are Not as Carbon Neutral as we Think
There is a logic behind trees being carbon neutral, as it makes sense they would absorb as much carbon as they then release through decomposition. Things get less favorable when we look at this on a large scale.
Research has shown that at least a wood-fired power plant will emit more greenhouse gases than a coal power plant for the first 50 years.
There is a lag between the amount of carbon 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.
Many factors are at play, including what species of trees are used, as some can take longer to grow or absorb more carbon. If a particular 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; therefore, extra energy is needed to boil off this water to make the combustion more efficient. This step requires even more power, 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 100 years before we can look at this product as a renewable option for energy.
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 adverse 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 is three times the amount of particulate matter released with road traffic.
Harvesting wood for fuel is a leading driver of deforestation. This is because of the high demand for this material, and poor measures are being implemented 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 more enormous 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?
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 rise, storing carbon, which can be used to burn.
Trees act like long-term battery storage for direct solar energy, which we can eventually harvest for 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.
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 from non-renewable sources like fossil fuels.
Harvesting wood is also less intensive than the practices used to get gas and oil, which are often disruptive and harmful to the environment.
Burning Wood is Carbon Neutral
To understand this concept, it is vital 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 essential factor in the fight against climate change; one adult tree can keep 48 pounds of carbon in one year. This carbon is only released once the tree either decomposes or is burnt, which 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 burning wood; releases the same amount of carbon as if you allowed it to rot naturally. This means that if we ensure that harvesting wood is sustainable and includes a long-term vision for tree growth, it will not increase the amount of carbon released into the environment.
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 locally sourced fuel, most importantly for the environment. This includes reduced transport and, therefore, the energy needed to do this.
Fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil are procured from specific locations and must be transported worldwide. One shocking fact is that 40% of shipping container cargo is fossil fuels, highlighting the added environmental damage they cause.
Wood can be grown locally and even in your backyard for personal use, which undoubtedly benefits 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 famous 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 energy.
So, What is the Outcome – is Using Wood as Fuel, Good or Bad?
Ultimately, anything people do on a large scale is unsuitable for the environment. The most positive form of burning wood would be local, small-scale wood burning.
However, sourcing locally, ensuring a low moisture content, and supporting reforestation by only choosing sustainable wood would be necessary. 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 less carbon neutral than 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?
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