Wood and Sustainable Development

Wood and Sustainable Development

Sustainable development can be described as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The UK Government proposes that this aim of sustainable development should be met by meeting these four objectives:

  • Effective protection of the environment.
  • Prudent use of natural resources.
  • Maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment.
  • Social progress which meets the needs of everyone.

Using wood fuel can help meet the first three of these objectives

Effective protection for the environment

The landscape we see today is a result of hundreds of years of management, the woodlands having survived as a result of their value to man. Loss of woodland has a tremendous detrimental impact on biodiversity whereas efficient management benefits biodiversity by creating glades where flora and fauna, such as flowers and butterflies, can thrive.

One of the major concerns about the environment today is the issue of climate change. The ever-increasing use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas has led to an increase in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Using renewable energy such as wood fuel can help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. This is because burning wood fuel is almost carbon neutral as the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere when the wood is burned is the same as the carbon absorbed by the tree whilst it is growing. To maintain this cycle of carbon absorption and release, it is important that woodlands are continually replanted or managed in such a way that the overall wood fuel resource is never depleted.

Even processed wood fuel such as wood pellets still have an advantage over fossil fuels because the amount of energy used in their production and transport is very small, compared to the overall amount of carbon emissions saved.

Wood is also a very clean and safe fuel. Unlike oil and nuclear fuel, wood fuel presents no risk if it is accidentally released into the environment. Emissions from burning wood fuel are also very low compared to burning fossil fuels. Wood contains almost no sulphur and very little nitrogen. Burning properly seasoned wood in a stove or boiler, especially one designed for use in a smokeless zone, does not create a smoke problem. The ash produced when burning wood is also an excellent fertiliser and presents none of the economic and environmental costs of conventional alternatives.

Limits on emissions from burning biomass have been introduced for those in receipt of the Renewable Heat Incentive.

Prudent use of natural resources

Key to the prudent use of wood as a natural resource is sustainability. Sustainable sources of wood fuel include wood fuel from:

  • Trees felled after the issue of a Felling Licence (issued by the Forestry Commission).
  • Woodland managed under the UK Woodland Assurance Standard (UKWAS).
  • Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) managed woodlands.

Other sources such as wood from coppicing and tree surgery work (to remove diseased or dangerous trees) are also sustainable. With coppicing, the original resource regenerates and, after a few years, is can be harvested again.

Woodsure Plus is a wood fuel quality assurance standard that includes sustainability criteria. From Autumn 2014, recipients of the Renewable Heat Incentive will need to purchase wood from a supplier on the Biomass Supply List. To be on this list, suppliers have to demonstrate that their wood fuel comes from a sustainable source.

The prudent use of natural resources also means that the wood should be burned in the most efficient appliance possible. Burning wood on an open fire, as well as having greater potential for the release of undesirable emissions, is also very inefficient, having efficiencies of only 15-20% compared to wood burning stoves, chip and pellet boilers with efficiencies of up to 80-90%. Ultimately, this means less fuel for the same amount of heat.

Maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment

Wood is a very versatile fuel that can be used to produce both electricity and heat on either a large or small scale. Using locally produced wood fuel creates new opportunities for economic development and employment, especially in rural areas where the wood fuel can be grown and processed. Using locally grown wood fuel makes sense because it keeps the money generated in the local economy and keeps transportation costs down. It also keeps the fuel as carbon neutral as possible since little fuel is required for transportation. As an indigenous source of energy wood can also overcome concerns about security of supply, an issue of ever increasing concern as more and more of our fossil fuels have to be imported.