Did you see The Guardian’s web site article “Can I keep warm and be green? – Wood-burning stoves may not be as eco-friendly as they appear” (5th December)? The thrust of the piece suggested that wood-burning (aka “biomass”) stoves were not “carbon-neutral”. The article went on to suggest that trees are too valuable to burn, instead, they should be turned into timber for houses or furniture. To keep warm we should burn gas. It was based purely upon a hypothetical carbon-footprinting study. And the source of the study? Bizarrely it was the AECB – the Sustainable Building Association. As you can imagine it invoked a storm of controversy. A proper tiff broke out when the Green Building Press (an AECB member) hurriedly distanced themselves from the AECB stance.
The AECB “Discussion” Paper – “Biomass – A Burning Issue” – is a short PDF (4 pages!) with no new research. It claims that biomass is not a low-carbon fuel because it produced more carbon than when burning fossil fuels. It went on to say that classing wood as a low-carbon fuel means that people use it as an excuse not to insulate their homes! (In fact there is no evidence of this latter point.) It is true that burning biomass gives off carbon at about the rate that coal does, however, when the forestry-fuel management is factored in this drops to less than a tenth of the emissions. It is assumed that growing sustainable forests absorb the CO2 and displace fossil fuel use. Of course this in an “assumption”. You need only change your starting assumptions and you can come up with all kinds of nonsense.
Now, there is a fair point here. If you are the occupants of Easter Island or Rwanda and chop down all your trees without replacing them, then of course wood-burning isn’t carbon neutral. However, if you re-plant at the rate of replacement then you have a sustainable closed loop system. The report’s authors assumed the latter didn’t exist. It is largely a matter of perspective however, there is little doubt that the ensuing debate may well have put a few people off the idea of biomass. This would be a shame. What the discussion document didn’t reveal was that the entire matter had already been definitively investigated in an April 2009 Environment Agency Report “Biomass: Carbon sink or carbon sinner?”. It considered the overall pollutants levels for biomass in comparison to coal and gas. It concluded that “The Environment Agency believes that the biomass heat and power sector can play a key role in helping the UK meet its renewable energy and greenhouse gas commitments.”
This debacle illustrates a set of social problems that repeat over and over as we move to this brave new post-carbon world. It goes like this: the problem/solution is very complicated. Many clever people have come together to analyse the benefits of a solution. The benefits are understood and the solution promoted. The solution becomes iconic and perceived inaccurately as a simple panacea by the public. The “carbon-footprint” becomes the ONLY measure and everyone ignores the wider socio-economic benefits. Those who understand the complexity dislike how the matter has been dumbed-down and fear it will be abused. Hence these boffins choose contrarian positions. The contrarian position confuses the public and does more damage than good. We have seen this sort of cycle repeat itself for Climate Change science and in discussions about Solar Panels.
No wonder most of us are turned off!
Now here is something to turn us all back on again: At the Transition Town High Wycombe “Superhome 59” in Totteridge we use both a Dovre 250 wood-burning stove in the lounge for localised heating and a KWB Easyfire Wood Pellet Boiler in the garage for central heating and hot water. Neither have been fitted in an ill-thought-through bout of eco-bling-binge-buying. We did extensive research into the most cost effective ways run a home without fossil fuels. We studied closely the advice from the Centre for Alternative Technology, amongst other sources, and concluded that wood burning gave us the biggest bang for our buck. It means complete independence from foreign fossil fuels as all the wood fuel could be sourced from within a 100 miles of High Wycombe. Thus we knew the truth would never be as simple as The Guardian suggested. Therefore we dug a little deeper and very quickly found that one of our Government’s own agencies had already answered this question last year. How many of YOU would have bothered? And nobody would have blamed you for not even trying. Most of us would have accepted The Guardian story at face-value.
So, what to conclude? Well, on balance, given that the Environment Agency has already answered the question, wood-burning is a generally good thing with a few caveats. Only very few of us may have the luxury of a pukka wood-pellet boiler when the fuel is as expensive as oil. Regardless, a lot of general firewood from end-of-life trees or recycled materials, can even be picked up for free. (There can never be enough firewood for everyone. We overshot our land’s capacity to keep us warm hundreds of years ago – which is why we use fossil fuels.) Never use an open fire – it is wasteful of heat AND a health hazard. Use an enclosed stove for burning logs. Never burn anything painted, wet or glued. Choose locally produced wood that is “seasoned”, ie dry. Ensure all wood products are genuine waste or from sustainable sources.
Follow these simple rules and you can burn wood in a relatively guilt free environment. Just don’t believe everything you might read in the newspapers. One final thing: You should ALWAYS maximise your home’s insulation BEFORE embarking on alternative heating systems. It is a much cheaper way of being warmer and reduce heating costs. For more information check out the Transition Town Factsheets on wood-burning as well as the Carbon Trust’s 2009 publication “Biomass heating – A practical guide for potential users”. All of these can be downloaded from our web site.