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To Counter Climate Change, We Need to Stop Burning Things

To Counter Climate Change, We Need to Stop Burning Things

If one wanted a basic rule of thumb for dealing with the climate crisis, it would be: stop burning things. Human beings have made use of combustion for a very long time, ever since the first campfires cooked the first animals for dinner, allowing our brains to get larger. Now those large brains have come to understand that burning stuff is destroying the stable climate on which civilization depends.

By this point, it’s pretty clear to almost everyone that we’d be better off not burning coal, the first fossil fuel that we learned to set on fire in a big way. The explosions set off by a billion spark plugs every second around the world are—for serious motorheads—being replaced by the electric engines in the most admired cars on earth. Even natural gas, long heralded as the clean fossil fuel, is now widely understood to be climate-dangerous, spewing both CO2 and methane. That leaves the original fuel for fires: wood.

In the early years of the climate crisis, scientists thought that “biomass” was an exception to the burning rule. That’s because, when you cut down a tree and burn it, another one eventually grows in its place, theoretically sucking up the carbon dioxide that the burning emitted. But, in recent years, researchers have upended those calculations. For one thing, wood burns inefficiently, producing large amounts of carbon for each unit of energy that it produces. Worse, it takes decades for those forests to regrow and suck up that carbon—decades that we don’t have.
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