Friday, 28 January 2011

How Does Burning Firewood Affect the Environment?

Many people ask how burning firewood impacts the environment. Usually their biggest concerns are with the ideas of deforestation and climate change. In the short term, we know that burning wood can make things smoky. But for the long term affects on climate change, we can only speculate.
The problem of smoke can be manageable. Much of the smoke problems are caused by inefficient burning. With modern wood stoves you should be able to burn wood with very little or no visible smoke most of the time. This can be accomplished by burning dry wood with small hot burning fires. Using smaller pieces of wood can go a long way here.
In some parts of the world, burning wood does contribute to deforestation. But in first world countries like the USA, Australia and most of Europe, burning wood does not contribute to deforestation in most cases. In most cases when firewood is harvested, trees are replanted or grow back naturally from seed, or with some species new trees sprout back from the stumps after the trees are cut down.
Much of the time firewood is produces from forest wastes that come from harvesting trees for making other products like lumber. Or it is cut from excess trees that were thinned to make the remaining trees grow better. In some cases cutting trees for firewood can actually enhance forest health or utilize material that would go to waste otherwise. Of course there are exceptions and some people will harvest firewood irresponsibly. It all comes down to consumers choosing responsible sources.
For climate change and greenhouse gases, firewood is considered to be carbon neutral. Burning wood is part of the natural carbon cycle. When a tree dies naturally,the wood decays or gets burned by wildfire. In both these processes, the carbon in the tree is released into the atmosphere as CO2. Since the trees that grow in its place absorb CO2 as they grow, there is no net increase in CO2. This is no different if it happens naturally or if you burn the wood in your stove. So as far as we know, burning wood does not contribute to greenhouse gases the way burning fossil fuels do. Of course this is only when firewood is harvested responsibly.
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