Wood is a renewable resource, and the carbon dioxide released in it is considered better than that from fossil fuels because it was so recently absorbed. Marc Gunther once called it "a renewable energy technology that gets no respect".
However, burning wood makes a lot of smoke and a lot of pollution. Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times describes how the smoke in Fairbanks, Alaska is so thick that it is beyond all acceptable standards.
Most people think of Alaska as one of the last great escapes from urban pollution. But they have not spent a winter in Fairbanks or the nearby town of North Pole, where air-quality readings in November were twice as bad as Beijing's.
There's lots of wood in Alaska, and the alternatives are expensive. There's no gas pipeline, and fuel oil costs $ 4.50 a gallon, so people burn wood or whatever else they can throw in their furnaces, and there is nothing anyone can do about it because this is America and people can do whatever they want.
This is Alaska's freedom belt, and nearly every attempt to regulate the offending stoves has been beaten back at the polls — most recently in October, with an initiative prohibiting the borough from regulating any heating appliance using any fuel in any way. "This whole thing has gotten conflated in Fairbanks: 'My wood burner is next to my gun — don't take it out of my cold, dead hands,'" said Sylvia Schultz, who runs a clean air advocacy website.
So there are no environmental controls at all; since the October initiative anything goes: "any combustible fuel. Natural gas. Trash. Tires.... Railroad ties. Feces. Animal carcasses."
There are people trying to change this; at Clean Air Fairbanks they say Polluting is a choice; breathing is not. They note that if something isn't done, The EPA will move in.
Extremists thumbing their noses at reducing smoke pollution no matter what the cost are winning the race to the bottom. Our smoke pollution is among the worst in the nation and rising each year. Families, neighbors, and the economy are being damaged. Controls with stiff economic costs are unavoidable. Digging in our heels only prolongs the harm and removes our community from taking a seat at the table where those controls will be hammered out.
This is an extreme example of a problem that happens all over North America. The fact of the matter is, even EPA certified wood stoves are dirty. Trees may be renewable, but lungs aren't.