I have heard wood fuel talked of as if it is the ideal sustainable fuel and also as helpful in reducing our carbon emissions.Yet, when you burn wood it does release carbon dioxide.
If you plant one tree in the place of each tree you burn, it will in time absorb an equivalent amount of carbon, but it will need time to grow. A well managed woodland with trees at many stages of development will get round this problem to some extent. This is because if the woodland is managed well you won't chop down a large wooded area all at once and then replant it, so that there are a number of years before the same amount of carbon is being absorbed as there was by the trees you originally chopped down. However, if you chop just one tree down, it will still take time for a new tree planted in its place to reach the same size.
So, it seems to me that there is a reduction in the amount of carbon absorbed and an increase in the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere whenever a tree is cut down and burnt, even if it is only for a short while. Planting new trees in the place of each one felled merely limits the shortfall in carbon absorption, but does not stop it entirely.
You may wonder if you can argue with a woodland being 'well-managed', but what this seems to mean is a way to make a woodland profitable while ensuring that enough of it remains to allow most of the wildlife that inhabits it to survive. However, there is also merit in an unmanaged woodland where trees have fallen down due to old age or the effects of strong winds and have been left to rot and so become a habitat for mosses, lichens and all manner of insect life, which in turn will feed many birds and other animals.
We must remember that a woodland is not just a collection of trees, but also a complex habitat for numerous and diverse plant-life and creatures great and small. The longer the woodland has been undisturbed the greater the biodiversity.
If you like the idea of living as naturally as possible or think our ancestors ways were often better than the way we live today this does not necessarily mean that wood fires are a good idea in modern Britain.
If a few people burn branches that have fallen from trees in their local woods along with the occasional tree that has fallen down in high winds, this will release a minimal overall amount of carbon dioxide into the air, the CO2 emitted during transport will also be minimal and the woodland will have suffered minimal damage, but the more people do even this and we shall increase the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
If we need to transport the wood even a few miles the C02 emissions are likely to rise substantially. The more people who wish to use wood the more damage will be done to the woodlands as there will not be enough fallen wood to cope with demand. Coppicing is one way to ensure large trees are not felled, but a coppiced tree produces spindly growth to begin with, so will still have less capacity to absorb and store carbon than it did before it was coppiced.
If you want to burn wood, do make sure it comes from a sustainable source, as locally as possible, but I can't see this being the answer to our fuel problems as a nation.
If Britain does have wood to burn it might be more efficient to burn it in a power station rather than in individual wood burning stoves and then everyone could benefit. Although I won't deny there's nothing so cosy as a roaring fire in the grate on a cold day if you are lucky enough to have a fireplace and chimney. Perhaps this would be best as an occasional treat, however?
This is an article by the Carbon Trust advising how carbon savings can be made by using biomass as opposed to conventional fuels.
There is a diagram on page 2 entitled 'Biomass and the Carbon Cycle'. It makes the point that because new trees are planted to absorb some of the carbon dioxide released into the air by burning wood, it is better than burning coal or oil, which cannot be replaced like trees.
I've also found something about wood fuel on the Permaculture UK Forum. Permaculture is about living as sustainably as possible. While one contributor called JohnB acknowledges it can be a sustainable source of fuel for some people he suggests that individuals consider their own circumstances and needs in order to decide on the best fuel sources and that other measures such as insulation and dressing warmly in cold weather are also important.
My suspicions are that for most people insulation and choosing more sustainable forms of electricity and gas could be the way forward. However, I await an overwhelming argument in favour of wood fuel to convince me otherwise.