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The wood burning hype is fueling all sorts of burning issues

Those who have recently covered themselves with firewood for the winter had to dig deeper than usual. Within a year, prices for firewood and pellets have risen in some places by up to 85%, the German Federal Statistical Office announced in September. Consumer prices rose by an average of 7.9% over the same period. Pellets for heating with woodchips became even 133% more expensive. In the Netherlands there were similarly large price increases.
This development is partly due to the increased demand for wood since the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, but has been going on for a long time: since the year 2000 the need for firewood has more than doubled. What implications does this have?

The forests

Permission to cut wood in protected forests is usually given in Germany only for ‘sustainable’ use. But when demand is high, the forests are often taken more than is good for them. In the worst case, the forest becomes so stressed that it dies when influences such as heat and drought are added.
Something similar applies to pure production forests, such as monocultures of spruce planted to meet the demand for wood. Such forests are by definition poorer in species than mixed forests. Moreover, they are susceptible to drought, storms or harmful insects such as the bark beetle.
From the point of view of species protection, it is therefore important to have more unused forests. For example, many more different types of lichens, mushrooms and beetles can be found there than in production forests. Unused forests are also essential for animals and plants that are dependent on dead wood, which is almost non-existent in production forests.

The climate

At first glance, the climate balance of wood is perfectly clear: when it burns, a tree only emits the CO₂ that it previously took out of the air. But the reality is more complex. Upon combustion, the CO₂ directly enters the air, while the carbon in the growth phase was absorbed from it over a period of decades. And it takes years until the tree that grows afterwards recovers the CO₂. If wood has to be climate neutral, you have to look at the current net balance: if less biomass is added than is felled in the same period, you have a problem. For example, the land use in Finland in 2021 initially led to extra CO₂ emissions because too many trees were simply felled.
But even when balanced, many experts doubt that large-scale wood burning is good for the climate. In many cases, forests could probably store more carbon if less wood was harvested. Whether that outweighs the fact that wood replaces fossil fuels cannot always be said, especially since wood burns relatively inefficiently.
That is why, in September, the European Parliament proposed that timber directly from the forest should no longer be regarded as sustainable – only sawmill residues should be allowed to retain ecological status, as should timber taken from the forest for pest control and fire prevention. The forestry industry protested: Why are sawmill residues considered sustainable, but not forest residues? And how are small forest owners supposed to finance the transition to a climate-proof mixed forest if they can only market a limited amount of the felled spruce?


Back in 2019, the National Science Academy Leopoldina warned that particulate matter emissions from wood burning were contributing “significantly” to “direct particulate matter emissions in cities. This refers to particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5). While emissions of fine dust from traffic have been steadily reduced by the use of exhaust filters, emissions from wood burning have stagnated or even increased, Leopoldina says. In addition, the stoves often emitted significantly more fine particulates than stated. One of the reasons for this would be poor fuels, incorrect firing with heavy smoke production and a poorly regulated combustion process.

The health

Burning wood produces ultra-fine particles which penetrate deep into the lungs and can cause serious illnesses. Heating with wood has been compared to passive smoking and is considered very harmful to air hygiene.
In addition, fine dust from the outside air also enters the interior, says epidemiologist Annette Peters, who studies the health effects of air pollution at the Helmholtz Zentrum in Munich. Poor ventilation results in a considerable burden of fine dust in indoor spaces due to wood burning.
But fine dust is not the only health risk. Wood burning also releases polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) into the air, says environmental epidemiologist Barbara Hoffmann; these substances are considered carcinogenic.

The onset

One of the benefits of fireside is the mental effect it has on people. Sitting around the fire is one of the oldest human traditions still in existence. Archaeological findings show that humans learned to master fire at least a million years ago. Fire brought warmth and light in cold periods, offered protection from predators at night and turned humans from prey to hunter. Paleontologist Charles Brain once reported on several layers of earth found in a cave in South Africa. The oldest layer contained complete bones of predatory cats and bone fragments of prehistoric humans that had apparently been eaten. The younger layer above it contained traces of fire. It contained complete human bones and bone splinters of large cats; humans had risen to the top of the food chain.
Researchers agree that fire made man what he is today. The ability to cook gave him access to more food sources. He could make do with smaller teeth and a shorter intestinal tract, needed fewer calories for digestion and travelled fewer distances to find food. And so man could sit around the fire all the longer, eating and telling stories. We still experience that soothing and homely feeling of sitting by the fire.
Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung