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The Dirty Practice of Burning Wood

My neighbor and I are at the northwest corner of my three acres, clearing out buckthorn. We stack that prickly invasive into piles of brambly cover for birds and other critters.

We’re clearing out the buckthorn to provide a more gracious procession of big oak trees into our neighboring properties. But we also have other quarry, in the shape of dead elm trees that will fuel our woodstoves for a couple of winters to come.

It’s a time-honored Vermont tradition: neighbors working together to keep themselves warm.

But the emerging science suggests that burning wood may not be such a good idea.

We’ve thought that the practice is carbon neutral. In most of Vermont where wood is cut, after all, it comes back.

The established wisdom has been that a thriving forest ecosystem – including selective cutting – is a way to protect the climate and preserve the local economy.

But it’s becoming harder to ignore the fact that burning wood is a substantial driver of climate change, which now threatens the entire planet. And it’s not a problem just in the Amazon. It’s an issue right here at home.

We’ve always known that fireplaces and old woodstoves produce a lot of soot.

Wood-burning plants like the one at Middlebury College, by comparison, were designed to trap particulate matter and also reduce carbon emissions. But a lot of knowledgeable experts now believe that even these plants actually make the problem worse, especially if used to generate electricity.

As Mary S. Booth, founder of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, puts it: “The problem with this so-called green energy source is that instead of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, it increases the amount of CO2 coming out of the smokestack compared to fossil fuels, and the climate ‘benefit’ is claimed by simply not counting the emissions.”

Bill McKibben, the prominent Ripton climate leader, also questions the wisdom of word-burning plants – even, if I’m reading him right, the relatively new one at the college, which many of us championed as a cleaner way to heat campus buildings and help keep the lights on.

A better course, as McKibben puts it, is to preserve our forests and embark upon a speedy, mass conversion to solar and wind: “We need to stop pretending there’s some easy way out of our fix and instead install the solar panels and put up the windmills,” he wrote in Grist.com back in 2016. “Trees will help the process immeasurably — but only if they’re allowed to grow in peace, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it safely away.”

Moreover, we’ve got to let trees grow old everywhere.

As Booth put it: “Climate science shows that to avoid the most catastrophic warming impacts, the world must cut its carbon emissions in half in the next few years, and be carbon-neutral, balancing emissions with carbon uptake, by 2050. There is no way to achieve this without a vast restoration and expansion of the world’s forests.”

Vermont climate skeptics are fond of the misleading argument that the state contributes little to climate change, so it’s hardly worth our trying to do anything about it.

The deniers’ argument is especially weak when it comes to burning wood here.

Burlington, for example, draws on the McNeil power plant for its electricity, and there is a large wood-burning plant in East Ryegate. These plants and the one in Middlebury rely on the now-questionable claim that they generate “renewable” energy. (Questionable because the latest science indicates it takes 50-100 years to get back to net-zero carbon emissions from wood — a timeframe that’s much longer than we have before climate change rages out of control.)

What about individual homes? A 2015 EPA survey found that woodstoves in Vermont are far more polluting than those of any other state.

Kevin McCallum outlined the puzzling contradictions, in an excellent piece in Seven Days last month.

Among the critics of wood burning he cited was Chris Matera of Massachusetts Forests Watch, a nonprofit opposing biomass burning in the Northeast. “They claim to be these green angels in Burlington,” Matera said. “It’s off-the-charts hypocrisy.”

Meanwhile, state government continues to push the use of woodstoves and pellet burning. The state also intends to triple logging in Camel’s Hump State Park at the same time that logging is being doubled in the Green Mountain National Forest.

This is, after all, still part of the way government officials think about trees.

Here’s what Mike Snyder, the state Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation, told Seven Days: “We get a lot from forests, and we’re going to save forests, and all the amazing things they do for us, by cutting trees.”

The inherent contradictions in that statement remind me of the U.S. Army officer who explained during the Vietnam War how it became necessary to destroy a town in order to save it.

It’s increasingly clear that wind and solar energy, combined with battery storage, are much cleaner ways than wood burning to produce the energy we need.

So were my neighbor and I doing a bad thing out there in my tiny woodlot? It took gasoline to fire up the chainsaws and run his beast of a Kubota tractor. The wood we will both burn this winter pulses out carbon dioxide at exactly the wrong time in history.

But the wood we harvested was from dead elms, which weren’t going to do anything to sequester carbon anyway.

When all that elm is burned, though? I’ll have to rely on oak and maple harvested from other Vermont woods.

So far as I can tell, that will still be a cleaner way to heat my house than burning fossil fuels from far away. But not as clean as I once thought.

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