CUTTING YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT: Fireplace inserts will lower your carbon output - Albuquerque Journal

CUTTING YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT: Fireplace inserts will lower your carbon output

Judith Polich

Our house came with an open, screened fireplace. In the colder time of the year, we enjoy the ambience of a fire and the extra bit of heat that it provides to our living room. But it’s inefficient, messy and can be dangerous if sparks fly through the screen.

When I started looking into fireplace inserts, I was shocked and embarrassed to find that an open fireplace, like the one we have, generates between 50 and 60 grams of emissions for every hour of use. In contrast, a fireplace insert that meets the 2020 emission standards emits 2 grams of emissions an hour. (One cigarette an hour would emit the equivalent of one gram in an hour). Those emissions include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxides.

Wood (biomass) is considered by the U.S., U.K. and EU as a carbon-neutral fuel. Biomass is considered renewable in commercial applications because when a forest is clear cut and replanted, the new trees will eventually sequester carbon. This concept of carbon neutrality is controversial. Burning wood is also considered carbon-neutral because when a tree dies in the forest, it arguably emits the same amount of carbon in the atmosphere as it would if burnt in a fireplace.

If you burn wood in a highly efficient wood stove or fireplace insert, it may emit less carbon than it would if the tree died and decayed in the forest, even though the natural decay process and subsequent carbon release is slow and some of it stays in the soil as humus. Here in the Southwest, a lot of the wood that we burn comes from trees that died as a result of insect infestations, or that needed to be cleared from overgrown forests. Most of what I buy was dead when it was cut.

Thousands of folks in this area, like my friend Marty, cut their own firewood. “There is plenty of dead wood,” Marty says. “The forests need to get cleaned up.” This annual cleanup provides a big service to our forests.

Our primary heat source is a natural gas furnace. Our fireplace insert will substantially cut down on our natural gas use. It is inaccurate to say that natural gas is a clean fuel. According to, natural gas emits about half of the carbon of other fossil fuels like oil or coal. That is why natural gas is considered to be a transitional fuel, rather than a solution to global warming.

In addition to the carbon emissions from natural gas, an enormous amount of methane is spewed into the atmosphere, often illegally, in its production. Heating with fossil fuels only adds carbon and other climate warming gases to the atmosphere. To prevent the devastating effects of warming, significant fossil fuels will need to stay in the ground.

Many people also have pellet stoves. Pellets are considered a green fuel and to have low emissions. But they are often shipped from a long distance, so consider the carbon generated by the transportation costs of getting the pellets to your home. Pellets can be made from wood waste and sawdust. But according to a Natural Resource Defense Fund brief, many pellets are made from both hardwood and pine plantation trees grown and processed in the Southeast, resulting in deforestation and pollution. We lose a major carbon sink each time that plantation is clear cut. Heating your home with wood that is already dead, or is sustainably managed, may be a better practice.

Make sure any wood stove or insert that you buy is 2020-compliant. Dealers are still selling off their old inventory, so be sure to ask how many grams per hour your unit emits.

Also, before you buy a fireplace insert, check with an installer to make sure that it will fit into your fireplace. Our experience confirms that it’s wise to get several bids from installers as prices vary substantially. Then be prepared to spend many cozy, low-carbon evenings enjoying your new fireplace insert.

Judith Polich, a longtime New Mexico resident, is a retired attorney with a background in environmental studies and is a student of climate change. She can be reachd at


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