I’m sort of piling on at this point, but I can’t help myself. Last week, the Seattle Parks Department set off a small firestorm when they announced a possible ban on beach bonfires. For whatever reason, the press ran the story as a global warming policy. (I’m told that Parks marshalled a number of reasons for the potential ban, only one of which was that bonfires contribute to global warming.) The city has since backed off on the ban, but in all the hullaballo I haven’t seen any treatment of the basic question: how much carbon comes from a bonfire?
Now, everyone seems to agree that bonfires don’t release a lot of climate emissions, but what exactly does that mean?
I’m here to report that a big bonfire might produce the carbon emissions of burning about 10 gallons of gasoline, but probably less (an estimate like this has wide error bars). Different kinds of wood store different amounts of carbon—the calculations are a morass, trust me—and, of course, it depends on how much wood folks throw on the fire. People do like a big bonfire though, so I made this estimate based on the emissions from burning an entire pine tree that was 5 inches in diameter at the height of your chest. (That means the tree might be somewhere around 20 feet tall.)
So I’d put bonfires into the same category as leaf blowers and backyard “carbon sinks“—much too small to worry about. But I think what’s most annoying is the communications. Global warming needs to be addressed with big policy such as a comprehensive carbon tax or with cap and trade. In the Northwest, we’re fortunate that there’s a very encouraging amount of public support for good climate policy. But turning every last thing into a climate issue just annoys people — and it’s counterproductive to getting the big wins that will actually make a difference.
It also tends to distract from the really good work that the city has done on climate. So while there may be other good reasons to ban or restrict urban bonfires, let’s remember that they are basically irrelevant to climate change.
Methodology: I used a metric calculator from Australia, which computes that a 5 inch diameter tree contains about 193.6 pounds of carbon-dioxide equivalent (after making all the necessary conversions). I ballparked a gallon of gasoline at 20 pounds of CO2, a figure that doesn’t factor in lifecycle emissions. (Factoring in these “upstream emissions” would further reduce the significance of the bonfire.) There are a whole range of carbon estimates in wood products, so your mileage may vary.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Allie Pasquier under a Creative Commons license.
I wouldn’t put “leaf blowers” into the category of “too small to worry about.” When I was a kid, we used something called a RAKE to clean up leaves. Zero emissions, zero noise, and you collect them for composting after.Radical concept I know, but I hate leaf blowers and think they’re just for lazy people. (I get tired of my bike route in Vancouver being covered in slippery fall leaves blown there by contractors.)
Eric de Place
Darcy,I hate leaf blowers too—they’re intensely annoying—but from a climate emissions perspective they’re pretty darn insignificant. I wrote up a full explanation (complete with calculations!) here.
Jesus Christ, Can Seattle be any more irritatingly pious than this? Eric, thank you for this dose of common sense. Whist we’ve been NW navel-blower-gazing, take a look at this shit:http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/06/10/us/0610-STORM_11.htmlYup. That’s bloody climate change. Time to start a contingency plan that matters. I’m warming myself up via a bonfire with buddies who are going to head back to the midwest and organize for a historic November election. Moi aussi. Have fun debating the finer points of bags and bonfires, Seattle suckers! The real fun will start with what to do about coal.
Eric, I gotta agree on this one. Bonfires as a “global warming” contributor just trivializes the topic. At the end of the day, all wood releases the carbon into the atmosphere. It probably doesn’t matter whether it is burned or it rots in the middle of the forest. Maybe there is a difference, but I suspect it is negligible.Let’s focus on the big ones that actually move the needle measurably. Like COAL power plants. Unfortunately, here in the Pacific Northwest there is not much coal in the mixture, so on a regional basis, not much to fight about here.
I guess I should have said, “Fortunately, there is not much COAL…”The Pacific Northwest sort of has a problem. The people here generally want to reduce their carbon emmissions, in fact the efforts here are far stronger than just about anywhere else I have lived. However with the electric grid already being the lowest carbon grid in the USA, there is not much in terms of low hanging fruit to go after.Just about the only thing the average person can do is buy a Prius or an electric motorcycle (www.vectrixusa.com) or some efficient lightbulbs. It all seems sort of chump change in the big picture.I suppose we could advocate a few nuclear power plants and export that energy to the idiots in California who refuse to build them. Of course, we are idiots here for also refusing to build them.
I work for the Parks Dept. and probably the carbon output is negligible for the fire itself, but there is a lot of gas used to run the sandsifter that cleans the sand of broken bottles and charcoal as well as other heavy equiptment to haul off firewood and garbage that people stack up to burn the fire…..there ARE far worse things to worry about having said this
I should be happy that Eric dePlace admits that banning beach bonfires won’t accomplish much, but his ‘big policy’ ideas to address global warming, (‘cap-n-trade’ and carbon tax), won’t accomplish much either.
If we make coal uneconomical by having huge carbon taxes in the USA, thus lowering demand for coal in the USA, won’t the coal just be exported to China (where there is a shortage of coal) and it will be burned there? The end result is the same amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.So what do we gain by doing this only in Europe and the USA?This requires all countries be involved. China and India cannot have a free pass.
I found this interesting and appreciated Sightline’s viewpoint. I was so surprised to see bonfires targeted when we have the Blue Angels and the hydro’s as Summer attractions. Now there is a emission impact study I would love to see!