Is burning wood harmful to the environment?

Wood burning - climate friendly or not?

Posted on 30-01-2018, by Jakob Schiele

Burning wood is seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to generating energy from fossil fuels, and for good reason. Nevertheless, there are now doubts about the climate friendliness of this type of energy generation. We have summarized the discussion among climate researchers and environmentalists.

What are fossil fuels and why do they produce CO2?

Fossil fuels are substances such as oil, hard coal, or gas. They are so called because they actually originated from fossils over millions of years, i.e. from the remains of plants that died back then and were transformed into their present form through lengthy natural processes in layers of the earth. These fossil fuels are largely made up of carbon compounds, just like the plants from which they are formed. Plants gain this carbon from the carbon dioxide (CO2) that they ‘breathe’ and then block ’it in their own growth. This means that all plant material, both living and dead plants, as well as fossil fuels made from plant material, represent a kind of carbon store. When these materials are burned (from a purely chemical point of view, simply a reaction with oxygen, releasing energy), carbon (C) is combined with oxygen (O) back into carbon dioxide (CO2).

This means that any carbon found in fossil fuels has at some point been extracted from the CO2 in the earth's air. Surprisingly, that sounds quite climate-neutral at first, but you shouldn't ignore the time factor, because this makes the calculation problematic. The carbon contained in fossil fuels was taken from the air, but because this process took millions of years, very large amounts of carbon are stored in oil, hard coal and the like. As a result, the release of all this carbon dioxide into our atmosphere today is completely upset. This rapid increase in CO2 levels in turn accelerates processes such as global warming, with potentially catastrophic consequences for people and the environment.

What about burning wood with CO2?

Since wood is also a vegetable material and is therefore composed of carbon compounds, CO2 is initially also released when wood is burned. However, this seems less of a problem here than with fossil fuels, since the CO2 released by a tree was also bound in its lifespan. This means that depending on the tree, the released CO2 was bound in a few decades or centuries, i.e. in a much shorter period of time than with the fossil alternatives. This means that wood burning is CO2-neutral as long as only as much wood is burned as can grow again in the same period of time. Another advantage of wood is of course that, unlike fossil fuels, it grows back in a relatively short period of time and is therefore a regenerative energy source. For these reasons, wood burning, especially in the form of pellets, has often been traded as an environmentally friendly alternative to generating heat and electricity.

The criticism of the environmentalists

For some time now, however, there has been increasing criticism from scientists and environmentalists who warn of the disadvantages of burning wood. For example, Professor John Beddington, a former research advisor to the UK government. He warned in The Guardian newspaper that wood burning could increase global CO2 emissions in the short term, as the wood emits more CO2 when burned than coal and gas and the necessary parallel reforestation of forest stands does not always take place. Many environmentalists also fear that increased use of wood as fuel will lead to greater deforestation and thus to the destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems. The German forest engineer Peter Wohlleben also warns that wood can only remain a sustainable raw material if forests are used responsibly.

Wood burning - climate friendly or not?

All in all, the question of whether wood burning is really climate-friendly is not that easy to answer. Compared to fossil fuels, there is definitely the advantage that with sustainable cultivation the wood will never run out. Responsible use of forests when cutting wood should definitely be the top priority. It is also still the case that completely komplett clean ’energy sources, such as solar energy, wind or water power, should be preferred when it comes to climate protection.

Jakob Schiele

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