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Environmental Impact of Wood-burning Heaters

There are a couple of different areas to consider when thinking about the environmental impact of wood-burning heaters. One area is regarding the harvesting of forests to burn wood. The other area is the carbon-footprint that wood burning leaves in the atmosphere. Both have arguments for and against, depending on which side of the issue one falls.


Some environmentalists claim that forestry is endangered on a global scale; however, that doesn't really apply to the North American forests. Damage to the environment can be minimized with selective harvesting. Clear-cutting a whole area is obviously not environmentally healthy.

Ideally, any wood harvested should be chosen based on the impact to the local forest. Cutting trees that impede the growth of other trees or that are already dead or dying is one method that not only provides wood for burning, but also improves the health of the forest. Limbs and brush that are pruned from still-living trees can also be put to use as wood fuel rather than taking up space in a landfill. Healthy trees can be cut sparingly in disparate locations to help avoid negative impact.


The carbon released by burning wood is approximately equal to the amount of carbon released when a tree dies and is left to rot naturally. In this respect, therefore, wood-burning has zero impact on the environment. Where the arguments come in is the carbon released when burning fossil fuels for the equipment used to harvest the wood. Still, according to studies on this issue, one BTU of fossil fuel provides 25 BTUs of wood fuel, so the expenditure of energy more than justifies the amount of return.


Another consideration that is part of this concern is the smoke generated from the wood-burning and its effect on people nearby. Burning the wood hotter reduces the particulate and chemical impact on lungs; therefore, the only caution to be offered here is that burning a smaller stove hotter is cleaner than burning a larger stove at a smolder.

People who claim that electricity is always cleaner forget that 50% of the electricity produced in this country is produced in coal-burning power plants, and although gas burning leaves a more benign by-product, the gas-drilling and pipelines to obtain the gas have their own negative impact on the environment.


There are pros and cons to wood-burning, but in general, the pros appear to outweigh the cons — especially in rural areas, when one considers that power outages and interruptions from community service providers for gas and electricity have absolutely no effect on the ability to burn wood for heat.