The case for wood fuel

| 15th March 2019
Ashdown Forest
Geograph
Managing and choosing wood in the right way might help us reclaim the case for burning wood.

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Wood fuel seems to be having a hard time of it lately. The arguments used to be so simple - wood is a green, sustainable product, right?  Well, maybe.  

The discussions around carbon and particulates suddenly make this debate so much more complicated, and are in danger of turning us off wood for good.

Take the news that 47 UK towns and cities are at or exceeding WHO standards for air pollution.  This has catapulted air quality up the political agenda, and stimulated a Government Clean Air Strategy published in January that has singled out wood fuel as one of the main contributors to particulate pollution.  Or Sadiq Khan’s suggestions that wood burning stoves should be banned altogether, causing uproar amongst those with a newly installed burner.    

Air pollution

So is wood fuel really the enemy?  It’s enough to induce a guilty conscience as you slip another log on the burner this winter or, worse still, to abandon your stove and crank up the central heating instead.  

Now, I’m not suggesting that air pollution isn’t important - it’s the UK’s top environmental risk to human health – nor am I saying that burning solid fuels isn’t part of the problem, but I think it’s time we re-claimed the case for burning wood.

Part of the problem with the recent reports is that they lump together all domestic solid fuels and all types of appliances, showing how they cause around 38 percent of emissions – higher even than industry and transport.  

But amongst all the headlines, I think we’ve lost sight of two simple messages – firstly, that all wood is not the same, and secondly, that the way that you burn it can make all the difference.  So much so that I believe if we burn the right wood in the right way we can actually improve both our carbon footprint and our air quality.    

Unlike solid fossil fuels, wood fuel should be a carbon neutral resource; the C02 released on burning is matched by the amount absorbed when it is growing.  But carbon can also be emitted through processing and transport of wood fuel, clocking up wood miles just like food miles.  

Renewable sources

Wood fuel should also be renewable, but if there isn’t a cycle of tree re-planting or natural regeneration, or if woodlands are not thinned sustainably, that simply won’t be the case.  

Well-managed woodlands will ensure that healthy trees remain long into the future, with carbon locked up in the mature trees, soils and vegetation, and further C02 taken up as young trees grow. This means that the woodland cycle is not just renewable and carbon neutral, but can result in a net carbon benefit.  

That brings us on to burning.  The reports have highlighted that burning green or ‘wet’ wood can emit twice as much particulate matter as seasoned or ‘dry’ wood.  Drying in a kiln or seasoning wood to air dry naturally reduces the moisture content to less than 20 percent, meaning that wood will burn more efficiently and can be classed as ‘ready to burn’.

Wood should also be kept in a well-covered, ventilated store to make sure that it doesn’t re-absorb moisture.  

And then there’s the wood burning appliances themselves.  Open fires can emit nearly ten times as much pollution as the latest range of ‘eco-design ready’ wood burning stoves, so called because they already meet the stringent air quality regulations due to come into force in 2022. Promoting the shift to wood burners and increasing efficiency can drive new, clean technology and the growth of a responsible wood fuel industry.   

Local communities

These discussions are being played out in the National Forest, where we are supporting the expansion of community wood fuel groups.  

Volunteers are out managing woodlands across the autumn and winter season, and at the same time enhancing their own health and wellbeing, increasing their skills and having fun.  At the end of the sessions they take a boot full of logs home to season and burn.  

It’s now got to the stage where they’re even sharing images of wood burners on Facebook.  This is about as local as you can get and highlights the multiple benefits of wood fuel and well-managed woodlands on your doorstep – and that’s before you consider the other things they’re providing, like access for people to enjoy woodland, improved habitats for wildlife or management of water flows.  

This is a success story whichever way you look at it, and surely the sort of thing we should be promoting.  

So, come on, let’s fall in love again with burning wood.  A simple shift from fossil fuels to wood fuel, and open fires to wood burners means that we can also make a huge improvement in air quality. With just five easy steps, we can all breathe more easily and ensure that wood fuel is still part of our energy future.

Five steps

  1. Use locally grown wood fuel to reduce CO2 in the distribution and processing
  2. Ensure your wood fuel is sustainably harvested so that woodland is maintained as a carbon store and renewable resource – better still, join a volunteer group and harvest it yourself  
  3. Dry, season and store your wood properly or buy seasoned timber that is ‘ready to burn’ to halve emissions of particulates during burning
  4. Use an efficient wood burner, ideally one that is eco-design ready.  These have increased efficiency and are permitted for use in smoke control areas
  5. Service and clean your flue and burner regularly to maintain efficiency 

 

This Author 

John Everitt is chief executive of the National Forest Company, which is responsible for coordinating the creation and management of the 200 square mile National Forest spanning parts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire.

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