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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.

FireInFireplace

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.

ChimneySmoke

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.

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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. Old article… But wood is considered carbon neutral. Tree growth removes as much air pollution as it adds. It is a sustainable cycle that does not add long term impact to climate change. Gas, oil and resources which are fossil fuel are reintroducing long since gone pollution back into the environment and have a MUCH bigger impact. I get it, you can see and smell the wood burning more, but wood burning stove technology has advanced and there are some very good stoves that burn with low emissions. Also… Don’t burn green or wet wood.

    • A,

      In the last few years the Air Resources’ Board in CA has worked with my local office to advise folks of some incentives to either upgrade an existing wood burner to an EPA approved model ($500 dollar rebate) or a $600 dollar rebate is offered to eliminate wood burning for the “H” part of HVAC. (1)

      My area, like much of the foothills, have experienced a few years of rather wet winters with a LOT of low snow this last year (kind of like the snow event of 2009). Sierra cement coating everything has lead to downed trees everywhere. Most folks are NOT burning the wet/green wood. The local transfer station has been very busy with folks bringing the green waste to the recycling center for further processing.

      1) The costs for a kwh of energy from PG&E have increased rather dramatically over the years- up to $.28 for a marginal kwh for most e-1 customers.

  2. Please just stop burning crap. It’s that simple. As a person with asthma, I can attest that even the smallest amount of wood smoke, even from a so called EPA clean burning stove with dry wood etc., I feel actual physical discomfort and pain.

  3. I consider wood smoke pollution to be a huge injustice and the sooner wood burning is completely banned the better. As prohibition is the only mitigation scheme that has been proven to work, and the need for clean unpolluted air so fundamental, I am still surprised 99.999% of the population isn’t with me yet. I put it down to ignorance and increasingly sheer selfishness. The science is settled, as you say both for the health effects (and deaths) it causes, and for it being the main source of winter particulate pollution.

    A lot of the excuses they use are because the wood burning industry has been lying for years. The biggest lie is of course that new “clean” certified stoves are better than old ones. What that doesn’t say is that they emit 1,000 times more than a gas fire. So yes certified stoves need complete banning as well.

    So great blog post Severin.

    Here’s my clean air website – http://cleairnz.com

    • wood burning/gasification is renewable, but natural gas/propane is not.

      going ‘electric’/clean in a country where electricity is primarily generated by burning fossil fuels is hardly positive. in most places, driving a prius/tesla = burning coal. i’m always amazed that this fact is ignored/suppressed.

      unlike electric “solutions”, self-sufficiency/sustainability can get you/family off the grid, which is a REAL positive change. urban dwellers need to remember that approx. 50% of the population is RURAL – very different lifestyle that is no less valid/important than urban living.

      i sympathize with people suffering from respiratory/asthma conditions, but expecting/demanding absolutely clean air in densely populated urban areas is rather naive. if you need clean air, then move/live someplace where you can have it, because imposing behavioral controls (esp. at higher cost$) on the many for the sake of the few is a losing battle, imo. not disagreeing with your point/efforts, just trying to inject some realism to the discussion.

      btw, the kuuma vapor wood gasification furnace recommendation above is on-point. wonderful, sustainable heat/energy technology for rural & suburban living.

      • And if you forget about particulate pollution you have completely failed to understand.

        Clean air is for the sake of all, not the few. If you demand the right to pollute in an urban environment then you have lost the moral argument. It is a selfish argument about you, and bugger the rest of us. Absolutely there should be a complete ban on all solid fuels in every residential area. Anything short of full prohibition is moral and political cowardice.

        The only technology that makes wood burning clean enough to be used in a residential area has never been invented.

  4. Here’s a skeptics quote I’ve seen that resonates and adds to the difficulties in making progress on climate change with those on the fence. “I will believe there is a crisis when the people who say there is a crisis, act like there’s a crisis.”

    • Bingo – we have a winner…

      the primary weakness of the climate change movement is the obvious/arrogant hypocrisy of it’s advocates.

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