Woodworking; is it bad for the environment?

As a teacher of woodworking and a naturalist, a question that always comes my way, especially from fellow naturalists is, "Isn't woodworking detrimental to the environment? You are cutting down trees to fuel your passion."

I cannot deny the accusation. It is true that I am cutting down trees to fuel my passion. Here is my thought process on this topic though.

Why do we need trees? They look beautiful, they provide shelter, they provide food and they provide fuel. They are a massive massive part of the biosphere. There can be no doubt of this. Hence cutting down a tree, is bad. No doubt of this too. Let's look a little closer into 2 aspects of a tree; food and fuel.

A tree creates food by splitting CO2 into carbon and oxygen. The carbon is held, the oxygen is thrown out and benefits every other living thing on earth. The carbon is combined with other elements and gets integrated into the tree as cellulose. AND IT stays there forever. Thus a tree or more correctly wood has a whole load of sequestered carbon, which will not be released into the atmosphere as CO2. Since Carbon dioxide is one of the larger contributers to global warming, this is a good thing.

Now look at the tree as a fuel. As soon as wood is used as a fuel it releases that carbon as carbon dioxide and pollutes the atmosphere in the bargain.

Chop the tree down and use it as furniture and chances are you will never burn those bits of wood, hence the CO2 that was sequestered, will stay in the wood for a long time to come.

"But why use wood at all. Leave the trees be, don't cut them down in the first place." OK, so name me an alternate building material. I'll probably hear iron, steel, plastic, clay, stone. 

I'm going to take a moment and introduce a new term here "embodied energy". Embodied energy is the amount of energy taken to produce a material, use it and then dispose of it. It is in essence the Cost to the earth. Steel and other other metals have very high embodied energy. Available as ores they are mined in huge strip mines which damage 1000s of hectares of forest and then smelted in foundries which use massive amounts of fuel (wood) or electricity which again comes from hydroelectric plants which have drowned thousands of hectares of forests. A similar story is to be told of cement and concrete. Glass is a shade better and plastics!!! Plastics have an expense of a different sort to the earth. Clay and stone are the only materials that have embodied energy as low as wood. But neither of them sequester carbon actively the way trees do.

Yes let the tree be, but only if we come up with a better alternative with a lower embodied energy. Otherwise chop it down and plant another. Plant another 10 if you are serious. But please don't tell me that woodworking is detrimental to the environment.


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