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Is Firewood a Fossil Fuel?

is firewood a fossil fuel

There are three types of fossil fuel, coal, oil, and natural gas. They were named so in the 17th century after the fact that they were dug out from the ground, two centuries before the word fossil started to be used to mean an organism that has died a long time ago. While most of the coal in the world did form some 300 million years ago from the ancient forests of ferns that grew on Earth in that time, wood is not considered to be a fossil fuel.

One of the biggest challenges that modern civilization is facing is global warming. Since the industrial revolution, the carbon levels in Earth’s atmosphere have risen by as much as 43%, rising with them the global temperature almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit. While this number doesn’t sound all that much, it is the average temperature of Earth’s surface and oceans.

For illustration, a drop in average temperature of just 1 degree happened during the peak of the Little Ice Age. Even such a small change of global average temperature can have huge consequences. Scientists agree that the main cause of the increase of the carbon concentration in the atmosphere, and consequent global warming, is the burning of fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels were used even before the Industrial Revolution, though it was on a relatively small scale. Coal was used for the production of iron and low-quality steel, and for cooking and warming since the time of Ancient Rome. With the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuel consumption was increased several thousand times.

Is Burning Wood Bad For the Environment?

Using wood as a fuel is considered to be carbon neutral because trees first need to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere before it can be used as a fuel. Trees, and all plants, need large amounts of carbohydrates to grow, and they produce them through photosynthesis. For this process, they need carbon dioxide which they capture from the atmosphere.

Besides the fact that trees need to first capture carbon from the atmosphere, the natural life cycle of trees would anyway lead to releasing this captured carbon back to the atmosphere. Once a tree dies in nature, it starts to decompose and rot. In other words, fungi and other microorganisms start eating it, and the end product of this process is carbon dioxide and water.

Burning wood, in essence, just speeds this process of cycling carbon through nature. And if harvesting of wood is done responsibly it can be very eco-friendly. In many parts of the world, the long-standing custom is that from a forest, during any year, never extract more wood than it is its ability to produce wood during a period of one year.

This way it can be assured that by burning the wood only the amount of carbon that was captured during a previous year, is released back into the atmosphere.

But, it is not everything perfect with burning wood, especially when the combustion is imperfect. In case that the wood is burned at a lower temperature and with the presence of insufficient levels of oxygen, carbon monoxide can be released into the atmosphere, a gas that is deadly for both plants and animals if in sufficient concentration.

Another concern of burning wood is the release of soot and nitrogen oxides. Soot can have very detrimental consequences on the respiratory systems of all living beings, while nitrogen oxides contribute to smog formation and acid rains.

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Is Burning Wood Worse Than Fossil Fuels?

In short, no. One way to look at is from the point of cycling of the carbon through nature. Plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and trees do too because they are plants. And wood cannot be commercially harvested and burned before it grows to a certain size, and during that time it is extracting carbon from the atmosphere.

Naturally, the tree would eventually die and start decomposing and releasing the captured carbon dioxide. Thus, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is in a relative balance, even though it can slightly fluctuate. Burning wood only accelerates this natural process.

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When it comes to fossil fuels use, it is releasing carbon which was trapped in the Earth’s crust for millions of years, thus not being a part of the balance in nature. This means that fossil fuels can never achieve carbon-neutral emissions. While biodiesel and some future synthetic fuels may achieve it, currently widespread fuels are far from it.

Another problem with fossil fuels is other emissions, besides carbon dioxide. They contain also many compounds of sulfur, and nitrogen, which are much more potent greenhouse gasses that contribute several dozen times more to global warming than carbon dioxide.

Does Burning Wood Contribute to Global Warming?

One of the primary causes and contributors to global warming is carbon dioxide emission, that’s is actually one of the reasons why the impact of other greenhouse gases is expressed in terms of equivalent carbon dioxide emission. Burning wood can be carbon neutral if its harvesting is done responsibly.

In many parts of the world, practice is to extract from the forests only the amount of wood it can produce during one year. But even if it is not done responsibly, burning wood releases into the atmosphere carbon which was only recently captured from it, maybe 20-30 years ago, which much shorter than the life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is several thousand years.

So, burning wood is just speeding up the natural process of cycling the matter in nature, only excessive deforestation can contribute to global warming, as it decreases the ability of forests to capture carbon dioxide and leaves increasing amounts of it outside of this process, and free in atmosphere. But even that contribution is several orders of magnitude lower than the contribution of fossil fuels.

Final Thoughts

Fossil fuels are chiefly coal, oil, and natural gas; along with the fuels that are extracted from them, such as gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and soon. These fuels have formed many millions of years from dead gigantic ferns and various microorganisms. Wood on the other hand is not one of them, as all fossil fuels went through a transformation from organic matter over a long period of time.

Using wood as a fuel can be carbon neutral practice if the growing wood for fuel is done responsibly. All plants need carbon dioxide to grow because they consume it in photosynthesis to produce complex sugars that are then turned into wood. Thus, while burning wood does release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it first needs to be captured from it.

If the burning of the wood is done in an oxygen-rich environment, with a high enough temperature, it is the cleanest possible heat production based on the carbon-based sources. And essentially only entails the cycling of the carbon in nature.

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