Is It Better To Burn Wood or Let It Rot?


I live in a rural area where I have to clear and deal with brush every year. The bigger stuff gets cut, split and stacked for my wood burner, but what should I do with the smaller debris? Is it better burn the brush or stack it up and let it decompose? Decomposition produces methane but burning wood releases carbon dioxide into the air. So here’s the big question, Is it better to burn wood or let it rot?

Letting wood rot and decompose is much better for the environment than burning it. According to the EPA, allowing wood to rot emits methane that’s approximately 1/6 of the carbon dioxide equivalent that would be emitted by burning it. The decaying pile will take longer to decompose and provide shelter for animals and energy for plants in the meantime.

With that being said, the EPA recently declared in 2018 that burning wood is carbon neutral in a properly managed forest. Managed forests improve the air and water quality, while producing products that improve our daily lives. Continue reading while I dive deeper into the difference between burning wood and letting it rot.

Burning Wood VS Letting It Rot

Burning wood may be humanity’s oldest way of generating heat, but it has a few downsides. Wood smoke contains toxic carbon monoxides, soot, nitrogen-oxides(aka smog), and a range of other chemicals into the air. Those chemicals are bad for the environment and can cause potential health problems in children, women, and people with breathing problems.

Carbon Dioxide emissions are the primary environmental downside to burning wood. Some environmental researchers even claim that black carbon produced by burning wood is the second largest contributor to global warming. The carbon particles in the atmosphere absorb solar heat, which both heats the atmosphere and melts the earths snowcaps/glaciers.

When wood is burned, it releases 6 times the amount of carbon dioxide than letting it rot. It’s hard to say before, but a pound of compost emits enough methane to methane to make a quarter pound of carbon dioxide. That’s much less than the pound and a half of carbon dioxide that’s released while burning it.

Burning Wood Releases CO2 Quickly

Burning wood releases more CO2 than decomposition, but that’s not the major problem. Wood burning releases all that carbon dioxide in a single roaring blaze. That’s a lot of CO2 that needs to be accounted for in a short time.

A decaying pile of wood might release some carbon dioxide, but it will take years to break down. So leaving a brush pile to decompose will cause way less damage when you take into account the plant life that takes its place. Plus it will provide shelter for natural wildlife and food for countless species.

Rotting Wood Is Celebrated By Forestry Ecologists

Ecology researchers like decay almost as much as they love live trees. Dying and dead wood is a critical habitat component for vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife. The average rotting/dying tree contains over 400 species living in the wood and under the bark.

The US Forest Service considers a forest healthy when it has a volume of 15 percent debris. A forest with less than 5 percent of woody debris is considered in trouble.

Chipping Wood Is Better Than Burning

If you need to clear forested debris and there’s nowhere to leave wood to rot you’re better off tossing it in the wood chipper. The main reason to grind up wood is that there are other ways for it to be useful. You’re not just releasing the CO2 and other air pollutants into the air in one single burst.

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