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Christian Friis Bach

Bach's Blog

The Executive Secretary's Blog

In use since 400,000 B.C. and no end in sight

Do you enjoy the coziness of gathering around a warm fire? In Denmark, we celebrate sankthansaften ("St. John's Eve") with bonfires all around the country. It takes place on the evening of 23 June, the day before Midsummer Day. According to the long existing tradition, the bonfires keep away the evil forces that are at work that night. Wood fires have always exerted a certain fascination for humans as it is seen as a double-edged sword. Fires can be a threat when they are uncontrolled but they are also a protection from the cold and have been (and in many parts of the world still are) essential to prepare our meals. More than 400,000 years ago, early humans began to understand how to use fire and it became one of the most important milestones in the development of the human species.

Now do not be mistaken that wood fires or rather wood energy is just an occasional romantic outdoor activity or something only used by people without access to modern energy services. Among the UNECE member States, woody biomass accounted for 3.5% of the total primary energy supply in 2013. Among renewable energy, woody biomass is the most important single source with 37.5% of the total renewable energy supply. However, wood energy is not only produced in heating plants. Often households in countries with economies in transition rely on wood energy, as it is sometimes the only available and affordable energy source. Some people in Western Europe are using wood for heating and cooking again after a serious financial crisis.

Goal 7 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals asks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. So can wood energy contribute to this? This is a central question as we come close to the celebrations of the International Day of Forests (21 March) under the motto “Forests and Energy”. Biomass is obviously unlike fossil fuels; it is a renewable material. Furthermore, biomass energy is considered to be carbon neutral, as the CO2 that is released by burning wood is equivalent to the CO2 absorbed by the plants during their growth. However, taking into account the entire production cycle, wood energy does not have automatically a zero carbon-emission rate. There might be additional emissions from harvesting or transportation of wood especially from imports (supply-chain emissions) and traditional wood-fired ovens or stoves can emit soot and particulate matter. With the right measures, however, these problems could be solved. For example, woody biomass should come from sustainably managed resources. Also, appropriate fuel parameters should be considered to make the combustion more efficient, such as a low water content of the wood.  Efficient incinerators and good pollution abatement equipment in small-scale plants that burn local or regional woody biomass also significantly contribute to making wood a clean and sustainable energy source. Watch for these and other tips on how to use wood energy in a safer and cleaner way in our video “More Heat less Wood”.

So, often it is clever to rely on the habits and products we have been using for more than 400,000 years now. Nevertheless, traditions and customs might require technologies to adapt to the challenges of the present and future. Except for the bonfires on the night before Midsummer Day of course!


If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.