Wood Heat for the Home & the Environment: Part 1 – The Environmental Concerns
When you heat your home – whether you burn wood, rely on natural gas, or use electricity derived from the most common sources like coal and other fossil fuels – there will likely be some environmental tradeoffs for keeping you warm. This article is intended as an overview of those tradeoffs, with particular emphasis on wood fuel. When you burn wood, there are many actions you can take to reduce environmental impacts. The first step, and the purpose of this article, is understanding those impacts. FYI: this is the first article in a series titled: “Wood Heat for the Home & the Environment”. Future articles in this series will detail steps you can take to burn wood in a more environmentally friendly way.
Greenhouse Gas Emission
Greenhouse gasses such as water vapor, Carbon Dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone absorb and emit radiation and are the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect. The increase in greenhouse gasses by human activities is the primary cause of global warming. When wood is burned, CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Burning wood produces the same exact amount of CO2 as if the wood rots and biodegrades naturally. The difference is the speed of the process. If harvested and burned optimally and no greenhouse gasses are emitted in production and transportation, wood fuel would be considered carbon neutral. For comparison, natural gas produces comparable Co2 when burned (which it would not produce if not burned) and significant amounts of methane. If you heat your house on electricity generated from oil or coal, the greenhouse gas emission is even worse than natural gas.
Air pollution results whenever fuel is burned, and wood is no exception. Whenever something is burned – be it wood, gas, or any fuel – particulate matter is released into the air. Particulate matter results in the soot you see after something is burned, and these fine particles – known as particulate pollution when they become airborne – cause many respiratory issues and health problems. Thus, it’s important to limit your exposure to smoke.
Another group of air pollutants that are the byproduct of home heating are polluting gasses. One such gas is carbon monoxide, which forms from incomplete combustion. Other pollutants of concern that result from improperly burned wood are nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Some of these pollutants can be carcinogenic. The risk from cancer-causing agents becomes much greater if additional undesirable chemicals – often found when trash, heavily inked paper, or pesticide-saturated plant matter is burned – are burned as well.
Deforestation and Renewable Resources
Wood, in contrast to fossil fuels, is a renewable resource. However, not all wood is replenished. The wood you burn in your fireplace may or may not be derived from deforested wood – wood from forests that are cut down without the trees being replaced. Other sources of firewood include in sustainable logging, sustainable plantations, agroforestry, and waste wood such as deadfall, debris, and recycled pellets. Fortunately, deforested wood is not typically used for firewood in Maryland and surrounding areas, for it is certainly the least eco-friendly sourced wood. Deforestation and the soil erosion that often accompanies it results in habitat destruction for countless species of plants and animals. Deforestation also contributes to global warming since trees absorb greenhouse gasses such as CO2.
It is easy to see the importance of practicing sustainability when using wood for fuel. Wood fuel, when procured responsibly, is indeed a renewable resource.
- Wood sourced responsibly and burned near its source will have a lower carbon footprint and less ecological impacts.
- The more smoke you see, the more pollution there will be.
- The more efficient you burn, the less fuel (wood) you will use, and the less pollution there will be.
- The actions you can take to burn smarter can be grouped into several categories:
- Using the right fuel. Not all wood makes good firewood.
- Running a smart operation. How you light and maintain a fire can really matter.
- Ensuring your burning appliances – chimneys, fireplace, fireplace insert, or woodstove – are as efficient as possible through upgrades and maintenance.
- Ensuring your home is energy efficient to reduce heat loss so you need to consume less fuel for heat.
When you burn wood in your fireplace or wood stove, you really have a lot of control on how it impacts the environment. Learn how to choose firewood that’s environmentally friendly in part 2 of this 5 part series.