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What wood smoke has taught me about fighting climate change

While much of the U.S. has been dealing with severe winter weather, California is experiencing a record dry spell.    The clear skies have also brought some cold nights and, with them, wood smoke.  What I’ve noticed in my neighborhood is that the desire for a cozy wood fire cuts across political lines.  And as the local air quality authority has called a record number of no-burn days due to poor air quality (high levels of PM 2.5, the fine particulates that can get through the respiratory system and lodge in lungs), the anger at restrictions on those cozy fires has also cut across political lines.

Many of these neighbors are friends of mine.  They are caring people who recycle their newspapers and bring home their groceries in reusable bags.    Most are concerned about pollution in general and believe that greenhouse gases are causing potentially devastating climate change.  Yet, they ignore warnings about the pollution from their wood fires, in some cases even blatantly violating the burning bans that have been called on nearly half of all days in the bay area since November 1.

The science on local particulate air pollution is settled – both that wood fires are the primary source in winter and that the health threat is significant.  And it takes much less imagination to understand the danger from wood smoke than the danger from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Particulates are visible in higher concentrations and your nose, eyes and throat tell you that there is a problem with the air.  GHGs are invisible and odorless.


Addressing the wood smoke problem does not require a fundamental shift in the way we live.  Sure there is a sacrifice – even I enjoy a wood fire on occasion – but it doesn’t mean living in a colder house, traveling less, reducing electricity consumption or anything else that has a broad impact on standard of living.  The houses around me already have natural gas furnaces that are a less-expensive way to heat.

Yet, judging from news reports, letters to the editor in the local papers, and discussions with my neighbors, there is widespread resentment that the air quality district is restricting wood fires.  Many of the excuses are of the “my contribution is so small it doesn’t matter” variety.   One recent letter in the local paper dismissed policies that are designed to reduce pollutants so small that they aren’t even visible, a “what I can’t see couldn’t be that dangerous” attitude that I bet is more widespread that we’d like to admit.

My point here is not to scold my neighbors.  I think they are just as public-spirited as other people.  What I take away from this is that people have a strong ability to deny uncomfortable truths about pollution (and externalities more broadly) when the implication is that they need to change the way they live, even if the change is fairly small.  The changes we will have to make to address climate change are going to be much more challenging than just substituting a cleaner, easier and cheaper heating source for a dirtier one that is also a hassle to use.

This realization has helped move me in the last few years to argue for much greater emphasis on subsidies for R&D to reduce the cost of substitutes for fossil fuel.  The renewables advocates are right that we have the technology today to address climate change, but we don’t have the technology to address climate change without sacrifice.


There are people who will voluntarily sacrifice to reduce their pollution, but that’s not most people.  Even among the upper middle-class households in my neighborhood (by world standards, quite wealthy), most people react by denying the problem or denying their ability to have any impact on it.

Broad support for national or international strategies to reduce carbon emissions quickly dissipates if those policies turn out to be expensive (see Spain’s abandoning renewable subsidies) or if other priorities come to the fore (see how Germany’s decision to ditch nuclear power has led to increased coal-fired generation).  In the developing world, where incomes are much lower and the other threats to life are more immediate, sustained support for more-expensive alternative technologies will almost certainly be even more scarce.

These political realities also point out another, related, reason to lean towards greater R&D funding.  Any shift away from fossil fuels will create losers (think coal miners, oil drillers, Big Carbon shareholders).  If the loss is directly attributable to regulation (or even pricing GHGs) there will be tremendous pressure to loosen the regulation.  If it’s due to a new technology then all the government needs to do is step back and let the market have its way.  “Regulation is killing our industry” carries a lot more political heft than “A new lower-cost technology is killing our industry and we need government regulation to slow it down.”

Digital photography destroyed the film industry without a murmur of government intervention.  If the shift had been due to expensive regulations on film (even if they were good public policy), we’d still be getting our photos developed at the local drug store.

With apologies to Donald Rumsfeld (now there’s a phrase I didn’t ever imagine I’d be writing), we have to go to war against climate change with the human and political constraints that exist, not the benevolence, rationality, and far-sightedness that we wish existed.



Severin Borenstein View All

Severin Borenstein is Professor of the Graduate School in the Economic Analysis and Policy Group at the Haas School of Business and Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. He received his A.B. from U.C. Berkeley and Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. His research focuses on the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. Borenstein is also a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA. He served on the Board of Governors of the California Power Exchange from 1997 to 2003. During 1999-2000, he was a member of the California Attorney General's Gasoline Price Task Force. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee, which advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. In 2014, he was appointed to the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, which he chaired from 2015 until the Committee was dissolved in 2017. From 2015-2020, he served on the Advisory Council of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Since 2019, he has been a member of the Governing Board of the California Independent System Operator.

37 thoughts on “What wood smoke has taught me about fighting climate change Leave a comment

  1. For those city folks with their weatherized homes, a rip-roaring fire is a double-whammy. It can back draft their flues if they have a gas furnace or gas water heater. So, not only do they dump particulates in the air, they can foul the air inside their homes, unless they open a window. But, who opens a window when it is 10 degrees outside?

  2. I live on a small organic farm in rural Oregon that is surrounded by what we preserve as living space for wildlife. There are trees that are decades old and fall or rot. I do cut some down and for every tree we burn I plant 10 more.We are near the poverty level, have no natural gas out here and propane is not our option. For every thing we do we try to be sustainable and recycle or reuse almost all material for our building needs. Our wood stove is Oregon state approved, cost us $4,000 to install and is about 87% efficient. The electricity comes from hydro power from the Columbia. Please let’s recognize that there is a place for efficient wood stoves, especially for poor rural elderly folks. All the talk about R%D, politically correct lifestyles, fossil fuel emissions are basically lifestyle choices, especially for “middle class” Americans. Let’s be sure to keep things in perspective.

  3. As always, the conversation spawned by the great blog posts from the Energy Institute is terrific. For me, the core of Severin’s post was the following statement: “Most people react by denying the problem or denying their ability to have any impact on it.” However, I think that “or” could have been replaced by “and,” underscoring the intractability of this challenge while suggesting that it is even more consequential.

    These all-too-human dynamics are at the heart of other climate-related challenges, whether one considers the net GHG impact of people flying cross-country to a climate change event (e.g., the wonderful upcoming ARPA-E summit in Washington D.C.), creating a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person, or the average California household sprinkling 115,000 gallons of potable water annually to maintain green lawns and other drought-intolerant plants. (Although, to be fair, the vast majority of the water use in California is for agriculture, industry, and power plants.) The vast majority of people, even those who acknowledge the problem, are very reluctant to change their habits and traditions in a significant manner.

    The solution set will necessarily comprise a mix of technologies (to allow people to do what they’ve been doing with fewer GHG emissions) AND regulation (from use limits/requirements to more sensible pricing signals to a carbon tax).

  4. Maybe the problem is how your local community is asking for no-burn days. Noah Goldstein (UCLA) just gave a talk here at UCSB illustrating how descriptive norms can be very effective at getting folks to change their habits. Maybe if the request had been stated as: “Won’t you join your neighbors, who during previous alerts have shown 75% compliance, and help preserve the environment by following our no-burn request”, cooperation might have been higher.

    • Part of the problem is the nutty way they have implemented their no burn rule in the Bay Area. They treat the entire area from Napa to Gilroy as one single locality. If there is a pollution problem in Gilroy but Napa 60 miles away is fine, Napa is still not allowed to burn until Gilroy clears up. Who can have respect for a rule like that?

  5. It seems that the substitutive technology for wood fire already exists; so the problem distills down to a behavior question. We need creative marketing and fast enough deployment.

  6. Aren’t you confusing pollution with climate change? They are not the same thing. When you burn wood you convert it to co2 quickly. When you put it into landfill it converts to co2 and methane slowly. The latter process actually produces more methane than the former and methane is a more potent greenhouse gas. The end result as far as climate change is concerned is that it is better to burn wood than let it rot..Not so?

    • Burning wood creates in an enclosed stove emits CO2, CO and methane (CH4) in various proportions depending on the combustion temperature and the setting of the stove’s air control. In most cases, the CO and CH4 emissions will cause more global warming (between now and the time when the world is likely to have exceeded the 2 degree temperature increase most people want to avoid) than heating a dozen similar houses with gas or an electric heat pump.
      If the wood is left to decompose naturally in the open air it probably won’t emit significant amounts of methane over the critical period when we need to beat global warming to avoid a 2 degree temperature increase. Glen Ayers, author of ‘The Methane Myth’ writes: “Forest debris left in the woods will produce very minor amounts of methane, if any, unless it is squashed into a swamp or buried in a stump dump. In fact, un-chipped slash is very slow to decompose, taking many years, and is unlikely to produce any measurable methane”

  7. The wood burning cook stove that was used to heat our 1883 house was removed between 1960 and 1980. If the flue was still around I would be tempted to look into some of the newer wood burning furnaces (or a sauna stove would work for our relatively modest home- sq ft wise, the sauna stove would be more than big enough if we ever upgrade out of the electric heaters in our in-law quarters) as the flue gases are greatly reduced with certain newer technologies- one example:

    Living in the foothills above Placerville, our housing density is low enough that the use of wood burning stoves isn’t as much of air pollution issues as it is down in the valley. Certain locations in the foothills the geography is such that wood smoke does not dissipate so some particulate issues have been reported.

    The primary air pollution in my specific location, in the winter, occurs during “burn days.” The wet biomass that many folks in the foothills dispose of via burning, doesn’t burn hot enough it seems as the particulate levels can be similar to when the occasional big forest fire affects the quality of the air up here in the foothills.

    The high price for propane has led to a bit more wood burning in my neck of the woods over the last few years. You can tell that the economy in the foothills hasn’t improved to pre-recession levels as the oak limbs that come down during high winds and snow/ice storms are usually salvaged within a few days. I am not a fan of folks using wet wood to heat with, but it has been happening.

    I was recently presently surprised by how a cabinet maker in my area found a good use for some dry clear cedar that was left over from a job he did for us (he trimmed the width of some siding for us so we could use it for different project at our place). Rather than recycle the 1.5” by 8,10 or 14 foot lengths of cedar (which would of ended up in the Sacramento county landfill and some years later the decomposition gases would of ended up in natural gas lines at the Keifer dump) he cut some of the scrap to fit into his wood burning stove for use at his shop and he took about a third of the material to the local approved homeless camp for their use. All in all I was thrilled with his approach to the scrap.

  8. This is a great commentary. But I’m not ready to generalize much from it. ALL behavioral changes take time. You may mostly be seeing the initial resistance, whereas after a few years people would get more on board. Public health campaigns have this character: seat belts, smoking, exercise, vaccination, and I bet even spittoons 100 years ago. Significantly changing behavior can take _decades_, so I’m not worried by one year of whinging from your neighbors. With luck, fashion/public taste eventually reaches a tipping point where the behavior is socially frowned on. As that spreads in different cultures, the pace of change accelerates.

    One problem with R&D subsidies is that they are unlikely to overcome the cost of retrofitting for a consumer. The only example I can think of is low power light bulbs; ;and look how long it is taking to get them refined and accepted by a large number of consumers. Businesses are much more rational.

    By the way, my wife a) insisted that we get a house with a fireplace, and b) asks me to use a log from time to time, even though it burns natural gas. I had some respiratory problems from the smoke, and she is rapidly reversing course. Human behavior, at least at the household level, is predicted and shaped better by _marketing_ than it is by _economics_. A heretical thought for economists, but when a company wants to increase its sales, who do they turn to? Don’t use only rationale arguments on your neighbors; use emotional ones.

    Azmat asks a good question: where is the house thermostat set by your neighbors; where did their parents set it 20 years ago?

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