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Should we ‘split wood, not atoms’?

By Hamish Johnston

If you visit rural North America in the winter you might be surprised by how many homes are heated by burning wood in sophisticated “dual-fuel” central heating systems.

But is this good for the environment?

Yes — as long as the wood comes from sustainably managed woodlots, according to Paul Grogan at Queen’s University in Canada.

Writing in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, Grogan and colleagues claim that a woodlot 3.5 hectares in size would provide an average household with carbon-neutral heating in perpetuity.

The reason, of course, it that carbon given off by woodburning is offset by new growth in the woodlot.

The usual objection to such biofuels is that they are derived from nasty monocultures that displace food crops. Not so in Grogan’s calculation, which is based on a woodlot of native species — so it’s good for the local ecosystem.

And in many parts of North America — particularly in the East — the amount of native woodland is actually increasing as unproductive farmland is taken out of production. So food crops are not being displaced…

…or are they?

I’m guessing that some of this farmland is going out of production because it is cheaper to grow food in say Mexico and then truck it across North America — than it is to grow the same crop 50 miles from New York City.

So, should we ‘split wood, not atoms’ as that old hippy bumper sticker says?

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One comment to Should we ‘split wood, not atoms’?

  1. dan.hatton

    It’s great that Prof. Grogan has found a biofuel supply chain that avoids some of the environmental problems that have recently been attributed to some types of biofuel. But, at least here in England, we can’t get too excited about the idea that `a woodlot 3.5 hectares in size would provide an average household with carbon-neutral heating in perpetuity’. Our average population density is about 4 people per hectare, and new housing developments are being built at 50 dwellings per hectare.


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