Sus­tain­able fire­wood We test the nine best op­tions... and please let’s leave kameel­dor­ing alone

Given the masses of in­va­sive trees in South Africa and the thou­sands of jobs in­volved in clear­ing them, beat­ing the cold with a wood fire makes sense. Botanist Dono­van Kirk­wood tested nine wood types to find a long-burn­ing, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly choic


Ionce tried in­ter­net dat­ing and mostly dis­cov­ered that ev­ery­one loves drink­ing red wine in front of a wood fire. I’ve lived with wood fires all my life, from old-fash­ioned open fire­places while grow­ing up to the mod­ern glass­fronted cast-iron stove that now sits in the lounge and keeps our rather draughty house tol­er­a­ble in win­ter. Be­cause I’m a botanist, the danc­ing flames are made even more mag­i­cal by the idea that I am lit­er­ally watch­ing sun­light trapped by trees over the years be­ing set free.

In South Africa, many fac­tors also make heat­ing with wood a more sus­tain­able choice. We have in­va­sive ex­otic trees in­fest­ing more than 10 mil­lion hectares of land. Even changes in in­dige­nous ecosys­tems are a prob­lem, with south­ern Africa’s iconic open sa­van­nahs ex­pe­ri­enc­ing se­ri­ous bush en­croach­ment and con­ver­sion to im­pen­e­tra­ble thicket. Fur­ther­more, har­vest­ing of fire­wood sup­ports clear­ing and cre­ates thou­sands of jobs. Wood is fun­da­men­tally a re­new­able re­source, made al­most en­tirely from at­mo­spheric car­bon diox­ide and sun­light by plants, so car­bon diox­ide re­leased by burn­ing sus­tain­ably har­vested or in­va­sive alien trees is not usu­ally con­sid­ered to con­trib­ute to in­creased at­mo­spheric car­bon diox­ide or global warm­ing. >

The al­ter­na­tives for heat­ing in South Africa aren’t great. We don’t have clean­burn­ing do­mes­tic piped gas. Elec­tric­ity, the most ac­ces­si­ble and con­ve­nient al­ter­na­tive to wood heat­ing, comes from a na­tional grid that has barely con­verted to re­new­ables. De­spite our gen­er­ally mod­est liv­ing stan­dards, South Africans al­ready con­trib­ute dou­ble the av­er­age global car­bon emis­sions per per­son ac­cord­ing to the CSIR. Nearly all of our elec­tric­ity, 90%, comes from burn­ing fos­sil fu­els – a ter­ri­fy­ing 90 mil­lion tonnes of dirty, low-qual­ity coal a year, burned in power sta­tions with in­ad­e­quate emis­sions con­trol.

Wood heat­ing is some­times pre­sented as the ul­ti­mate low-tech green so­lu­tion. Of course, noth­ing is quite so sim­ple. There are chal­leng­ing re­al­i­ties to con­sider. Clean­ing out wood ash and stoves is not for ev­ery­one. In­ef­fi­cient, smoky fires aren’t ro­man­tic at all. There are health risks, and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues can be con­fus­ing, with most of the on­line ad­vice com­ing from other coun­tries. So what do you need to know about wood fires and fire­wood?

First, the health risks of heat­ing with wood are real, con­firmed by a plethora of stud­ies, and one needs to un­der­stand some ba­sics to avoid them. A lit­tle wood smoke smells lovely and is nat­u­ral, but it does con­tains many toxic chem­i­cals with scary names and scarier health ef­fects – ben­zene, formalde­hyde, acrolein and poly­cyclic aro­matic hy­dro­car­bons (PAHs). Fine air­borne par­tic­u­lates with a di­am­e­ter less than 2.5 mi­crom­e­ters (PM2.5) are known to be par­tic­u­larly dam­ag­ing. Aus­tralian re­search has shown that even the >

Ablack wat­tle clear­ing along a river.

Wat­tles re­plac­ing pris­tine fyn­bos are a com­mon sight in the Western Cape.

A Port Jack­son clear­ing on the West Coast.

Pines march­ing across fyn­bos.

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