Our site is reader-supported, and thus this post and the photos within may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of our links, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Your continued support helps to fund our content, independent research, testing, and reviews.
Burning wood is one of the cheapest ways to generate heat for households, but there are three serious drawbacks.
It includes moderate risk statistically speaking, it is not cost-efficient, nor is it an eco-friendly option. One main issue is that your traditional fireplace only converts 15% of the wood’s energy into useful heat. While it is is possible to find more efficient wood-burning methods for heating a space, it may be best to look into alternatives.
Is it environmentally friendly to burn wood?
In 2019 the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruit announced that the EPA was considering moving wood-burning for energy generation to a carbon-neutral activity. The European Union shares this viewpoint. This shift in thinking was quickly met by critics who painted it as a political policy concession for the wood and timber industry.
Carbon neutrality is a term used to describe a situation in which the amount of carbon dioxide emitted comes into balance by the same amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere, either through carbon sinks or by carbon-offsetting.
Here is the dilemma. If the EPA claims wood-burning as carbon-neutral, then American industries are allowed to treat it as a renewable resource for the country’s energy needs. Their argument is rooted in two key points: wood burning is better than coal, and the CO2 released by the wood offsets the carbon that the tree ingested over its lifetime. Scientists claim that this is hugely misleading. Biofuels can only reduce atmospheric CO2 over time through post-harvest increases in net primary production (NPP).
Burning wood for fuel releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere rapidly. It’s not absorbed by forests immediately, so it is not possible to achieve a net-zero carbon emission. Forests and similar natural carbon sinks take decades or even centuries to consume the massive amounts of carbon that wood-burning produces.
There are other factors to consider. Additional carbon emissions are required to transform the biomass into energy. The logging trucks and heavy machinery expend oil-based and create large amounts of pollution alone. Not to mention the fuels needed to convert timber into wood pellets and other byproducts. This process adds more carbon to the atmosphere than is easily mitigated.
Think about it. We are cutting down the natural resource that purifies our air. We spend enormous amounts of resources to do so. Then, intentionally burn it, send large amounts of smoke and particulate matter into our skies, and increase air and particle pollution.
Wood burning was once necessary for humans to survive. We have no fur and minimal natural defenses against cold temperatures, aside from shaking. In the modern era, however, can we consider moving to alternatives from time to time? I think so.
Does burning wood pollute the air?
Yes, wood-burning contributes to air pollution. One kilogram of wood releases approximately 1.9 kilograms of carbon.
On a larger scale, Britain’s largest coal-burning power station, Drax, replaced coal with wood pellets and claims to be Europe’s largest carbon-saving project. While that may be true, it still sends 23 million tons of carbon dioxide into the environment each year.
While the argument is debatable that wood-burning negatively affects our environment, the smoke and air pollution produced is undeniably dangerous to our health. As a side effect, the air and particle pollution generated is responsible for 3.8 million deaths every year and contributes to other respiratory ailments and diseases including premature death, heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, and increasing negative respiratory symptoms.
Wood smoke contains a mixture of toxic gases and fine particulates, also known as particle pollution. Carbon monoxide is abundant in smoke from wood that is burning incompletely. Benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also present and potentially life-threatening when inhaled. The smaller these particulates, the more dangerous they become, capable of entering the bloodstream through our lungs.
It can also cause damage to our ecosystems. When these particulates settle on the ground, they can contaminate our lakes and streams, making them acidic, or upend the nutrient cycle in our coasts and rivers. They are also known to contribute to the effects of acid rain.
Not only that, but they also produce twice as much nitrogen oxide and soot, among other volatile substances commonly referred to as VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds. The mixture of these pollutants from smog when kept from entering the stratosphere where our Ozone layer is present.
Increases in nitrogen oxide levels accelerate the growth of harmful algae blooms or overgrowths of algae in the water. Some produce dangerous toxins, but even nontoxic blooms hurt the environment and local economies. When evaporated and stored in rain clouds, problems emerge when the excess starts to release in otherwise healthy bodies of water, including our oceans.
Is burning wood worse than coal?
The debate is whether or not biobased fuel like that of wood burning is better for the environment or not. According to some experts, wood-based power generation will increase carbon dioxide levels over time more than coal.
The United States is a great case study, having more than 70 wood-burning power plants. It’s been found that 50 percent more carbon emissions are released than their coal-based counterparts.
On the surface, wood-burning may seem like a clear choice because it is biobased and technically renewable by planting new trees. Coal is a fossil fuel, non-renewable, and limited by nature. The problem for wood burning arises because combustion and processing efficiencies are less than that of coal. The immediate impact of substitution will result in an increase in carbon emissions for at least a century. The payback time ranges from 44 to 104 years after a clearcut and depends on the type of forest, making matters worse.
In the end, there is no definitive answer. Past and current research attempts to analyze the dynamic lifecycle of wood bioenergy and how it compares to coal alternatives. We don’t want to assume that biofuels will reduce air pollution and the environmental impact of our energy industries. This way of thinking may worsen the irreversible effects of climate change before tangible benefits can accrue.
Here’s a fun fact for you in case you don’t already know. Coal is the altered remains of prehistoric vegetation, and the energy we get from it today comes from the energy that plants absorbed from the sun millions of years ago. We obtain coal from mining above and below ground with the vast majority of China, followed by India and the United States.
Does burning wood contribute to global warming?
Wood-burning contributes to environmental damage and adds to the greenhouse gases present in our atmosphere. These greenhouse gasses are heat-trapping are due to higher levels than ever before recorded in human history, temperatures have increased 2 degrees Fahrenheit in only 150 years. Considering how sensitive our ice caps and coral are to heat, this is extremely bad, leading to global flooding and the destruction of marine ecosystems.
The outlook on this topic has been grim at best with Canada’s last Arctic Ice Shelf collapsing due to the effects of climate change. And it looks like global warming will be the culprit in releasing the carbon locked in tropical forest soil. But as Al Gore says, we have everything that we need to begin solving this crisis with the possible exception of the will to act. The Earth is counting on us to do our part. We must become part of the solution rather than remaining part of the problem.