Paul Brannen: Why wood is so much more than a burning issue

North East Euro MP Paul Brannen says wood has a much bigger role to play - and the North East can lead the way

Autumn leaves at Kielder Forest
Autumn leaves at Kielder Forest

As we enter the New Year I am reminded of my mother’s Scotticism, ‘Lang may your lum reek’. Technically this translates as, ‘Long may your chimney smoke’ but in reality it means, ‘I hope you can afford to keep warm’. Given how fuel bills have risen year on year it is a saying more apt then ever.

While 2014 was officially the warmest year on record due to man made climate change, a stark reality that amongst the political parties only Ukip denies, this headline masks the fact that we still face long cold spells in the winter that we need to warm ourselves against.

In fact climate change can mean both colder winters and warmer summers ie greater extremes. Turn on the heating and you immediately start burning your cash, which is a major problem especially for those on low incomes.

The vast majority of homes in the UK don’t have air conditioning but as out summers become hotter there will be a growing demand for cool air which takes energy to produce, the production of which involves burning fossil fuels which is the very cause of the rising temperatures we seek to counter with air conditioning!

An additional vicious circle is set to be unleashed if we don’t act, the demand for cool air in northern countries that historically have not needed it.

In December of this year the nations of the world will meet in Paris to once again try and come up with an international agreement on tackling climate change. Time is really running out, the clock stands at close to midnight.

What we do know is that there is no silver bullet to counter climate change. Rather we need to implement a string of measures that each makes a contribution to tackling the single biggest threat to life on earth.

Energy efficiency is the biggest step we can take, that is to make more efficient use of the energy we do produce from oil, gas and coal – don’t waste any of it. As it currently stands most UK homes remain poorly insulated which means our fuel bills are bigger than needs be and our carbon emissions – which cause climate change – are hence bigger than needs be.

Wingates wind farm in Northumberland
Wingates wind farm in Northumberland

Green energy, from wind and solar, has grown at pace in recent years which is excellent news but there is more still to do. In the UK we need to make greater strides to maximise our wind and wave potential, as we are currently falling well short, especially on wave. It’s a potential that could unleash a huge number of good quality jobs – just what the North East needs.

While green energy can reduce our dependency on climate change causing fossil fuels there remains a series of industrial processes that demand extremely high levels of heat which fossil fuels are currently best able to supply. These processes include the manufacture of iron and steel, cement and fertiliser.

To deal with the inevitable high carbon emissions this production causes we need to be developing carbon capture and storage. So as the fossil fuels are burnt to produce the heat the resulting carbon emissions can capture and store below the Earth’s surface. The Norwegians have been successfully and safely pumping carbon emissions into empty oilfields in the North Sea, it’s time we did the same.

An often overlooked measure in tackling climate change is the role of our forests and woodland. Currently 10% of Europe’s carbon emissions are sequestrated or stored by our trees. Trees really are amazing, breathing in and storing carbon while at the same time breathing out oxygen. Dogs have their place but the reality is; man’s best friend is a tree!

Not only do trees help tackle climate change by storing carbon, wood products do the same, hence we need to make a psychological leap in our thinking about wood.

Basically we should use wood wherever possible, albeit in a sustainable way. This means a much greater use of wood in house building and in furniture. House builders are too conservative in how they use wood, they should get themselves over to Bergen in Norway where Europe’s tallest wooden structure, a 14-storey block of flats is being built with no steel or concrete.

At the same time we need further research spending on what else we can do with wood. Wood fibre is already in many cars, similar fibres can replace oil based polyester in clothes but clearly we can do more with wood.

Wood, as Journal readers will appreciate, is something the North East has a lot of, in fact more than anywhere else in England. There is no reason why our region couldn’t lead on developing new and innovative uses for wood, thereby creating jobs and tackling climate change at the same time. Now that wood be good, wouldn’t it?

  • Paul Brannen is a Labour MEP for the North East.


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