Why wood burning is not carbon neutral

When politicians and advertisers and propagandists want to do something to persuade us that a policy or product or idea is something new, because the old policy, product or idea has failed, they re-invent vocabulary and assign new meanings to words in the hope of fooling us into thinking that the policies, products and ideas are new, whereas it is only the words that are new or used in a different context.

So instead of a settlement negotiation we have a “road map”. A “problem” becomes “an issue”. It has always been thus: Voltaire pointed out that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.

In environmental matters words are abused as much as energy is, to hide their real meanings and persuade us that there are easy options. We have “zero carbon homes” which produce carbon, and “a low carbon building programme” which is neither low carbon, nor is it a building programme and we have carbon offsetting, which does not offset carbon, merely slings a few ounces in one side of the balance when there are pounds in the other side. Worse of all, we have the concept of “carbon neutral”.

A forum at the Burning Issue website points out that “carbon neutral” cannot apply to any carbon based fuel. It can only apply to energy sources that do not in their fuel, create carbon – such as solar, nuclear and wind energy. You can read more about this at http://burningissues.org/forum/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=668 and I recommend that you do.

The burning issues website is concerned with air pollution caused by burning. My concern with this subject (and an article I wrote about this) led a UK trade association to write to me to ask me to stop criticising other renewable technologies.

I cannot do that. I cannot subscribe to the concept that all renewable technologies are equal. Some are better than others. Some are better in some locations than others. You would not put solar panels on a house that is in the middle of a shady forest and you shouldn’t put wood burning furnaces in apartment buildings in the middle of London (although the latter has happened, believe it or not!).

The good people at the Burning Issues website have calculated that to offset the carbon produced by a very small home fuelled by wood burning needs around 63 acres of land to plant trees on, cutting down two acres each year for fuel and replanting as they go. After 30 years the process restarts.

I have not tested their calculations but it is clear to me that to offset the carbon emitted by wood burning needs far more tree planting than we are doing as a planet. It may be in some communities in places where the population is small and the woodland extensive this may happen, but it does not count for much if we burn more wood than we grow each year.

Although we are not planting as many trees as we have to plant (and somehow I doubt if we ever will) out in Australia farmers are looking to store or sequestrate carbon in the soil.

Ever since Australia was colonised at the expense of its aboriginal people, the colonists have farmed sheep. They were encouraged to clear the land of trees – they would cut down a tree to make room for a sheep. Intensive grazing by sheep led to soil degradation and when the soil was degraded sufficiently the farmers move on to new land and started the process again there.

That process meant that the land was leached of its stored carbon. Currently Australian soils store little carbon but a new movement there is leading to carbon gradually being replaced in soils by farmers who farm in ways that enable the soil to hold as much carbon as possible and retain it.

In essence they want to ensure that the carbon in decomposing matter that once lived is pushed into the soil by roots of foliage and held there as humus. Depending on what you grow, the soil can either release carbon or store it and the Australian soil carbon farmers seek to retain as much carbon in the soil as possible.

Now this is real carbon sequestration; the soils of the planet already hold more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

There is plenty of land to store carbon; the Australian colonial farmers were not exceptional – mostly farming has released carbon from the soil. When a forest is cleared in, say, Ecuador, for farming the clearing of the wood and its burning releases carbon and then when the soil is tilled and ploughed and worked more and more carbon is also released.

It seems fairly obvious that we should not burn wood, except perhaps waste wood from households that we cannot recycle, and that we should leave the forests undisturbed so that they can sequester carbon by allowing the vegetation to rot into peat. We should study the methods of the Australian soil carbon farmers and implement their ideas into farms everywhere.

It also seems obvious that the techniques of political or commercial persuasion by renaming things ultimately never work, because people realise eventually that the thing is still the “same old, same old” thing. They will realise it when they cough their way through wood smoke as the intensity of particulates and the measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to increase and with it changing the climate, despite all the so called carbon neutrality.


30 Responses

  1. Thanks for trying to set the record straight. The microbiology of soils is a complex subject. Few people realize that soil can store carbon and fail to consider that CO2 is only one chemical form of carbon. See info on soil organic carbon (SOC)


  2. I stopped reading when I hit “very small home . . . two acres”. I am in a medium/small home and burn wood. The house is very tight. We burn about 1.3 cords per year. One large tree provides this easily.
    The numbers are so out of whack that I must assume your conclusions are similarly skewed.

  3. I’m afraid you have missed the point completely. Heating homes with fossil fuels is ADDING to C02 emmissions period. Wood burning is NOT adding C02 to the existing enviornment. Cities have trees, trees need to be trimmed, removed and replanted constantly. These trees if not burned, go to the landfills and add to our waste problem. Burning in homes, businesses or for electricity generation, is returning the C02 used to “grow” these trees in the first place. THEY DO NOT ADD NEW C02, (as in fossil fuels to the air), they just recycle what was already there.

    • Consider: if you do not burn a tree or its trimmings but allow the tree to rot naturally, it will release its carbon dioxide over a period of decades. About half of the carbon dioxide will not be released into the atmosphere but will leach into the soil. If you burn it the whole of the carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere over a few hours, not decades. We are releasing much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the planet can recycle. Burning wood is making things worse.

    • Sorry Brian but your theory is backwards. It is better to burn the fossil fuel and leave the tree standing, so that it can proceed to absorb the CO2 produced. If you cut the tree down, what will absorb CO2 then?

  4. I think you will find that a fallen tree will rot in considerably less than ‘decades’. My own home in near the French Alps is right next to large broadleaf forest. So large in fact that I can easily collect enough naturally fallen wood to keep my home warm. Since it routinely gets below -14c in Winter then you might understand that keeping warm is important to us.

    Much depends on location of course but a fallen tree can become useless as lumber in a matter of weeks. The same tree becomes useless as fire-wood inside a year. There are massive fungal and insect infestations and Ive seen big trees reduced to so much mulch in short periods. The drier the environment, the slower the process gets.

    That rotting is not just releasing carbon dioxide but also methane, another ‘baddie’ for global warming.

    But arnt we missing the point here? Beating up on nature for what nature does is a fools errand.

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