Europe returns to firewood – Pollution, high prices, theft: Europeans burn wood due to the energy crisis

Egzona Shala, head of an environmental organization in Kosovo, where electricity prices have skyrocketed, said deforestation has increased significantly. His group, EcoZ, monitors forests in mountainous areas and in some cases has found people illegally cutting down trees at 5 in the morning. The wood is then sold in the capital. Often the trees that fall are young. The forests, he pointed out, were subjected to “vulgar deforestation without any criteria or control”.

Vanessa Gera, David McHugh and Aurel Obreja

CHISIN, Moldova (AP) — Tudor Popescu hits a log with an ax, then drives firewood cut on the stove that heats his house in the capital Moldova. As the nights grow colder, the mounds of firewood they grew around him, his reserve for the next winter.

He used Popescu natural gas to warm up in the morning and firewood at night. But now gas is lowwhich opened a crisis in his little country in the east Europe.

“I don’t use gas anymore, so it will just be wood,” Popescu said. “But what I have is not enough.”

Europe’s energy crisis created when Russia cut off natural gas in its war against Ukraine has forced some people to turn to cheaper heating sources, such as wood, before winter arrives. But as more and more people burn and pile up firewood, prices skyrocket, robberies and scams appear.

A worker holds a handful of wood pellets produced in Ettenheim, southern Germany, October 21, 2009.
A worker holds a handful of wood pellets produced in Ettenheim, southern Germany, October 21, 2009. Photo: Winfried Rothermel, File, AP

Logging companies are attaching GPS devices to logs to track their valuable shipments, as concerns grow about the environmental impact of air pollution and additional deforestation.

In the former Soviet republic of Moldova, the government fears this winter could be disastrous for many of its citizens due to high electricity and heating costs, as natural gas prices in Europe are around three times higher than in early 2021 even after falling from record highs in August.

Europe’s poorest country, which is western but has swaths of territory controlled by Russian troops, recently saw Russian energy giant Gazprom cut its natural gas supply by 30 percent and threaten further cuts.

The craze for firewood is not limited to modest countries like Moldova, but has also spread to the wealthier regions of Europe. State forests in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic are seeing much higher demand for the limited amount of firewood they sell as part of their sustainable forest management.

That demand often comes from people who have never bought firewood before and seem unaware that it must be purchased two years in advance to dry enough to burn in wood stoves, according to the forestry service in the southwestern German state of Hesse.

Two men chop firewood outside Chisinau, Moldova, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.
Two men chop wood for heating on the outskirts of Chisinau, Moldova, Saturday, October 15, 2022. Photo: Aurel Obreja, AP

German foresters also saw more people collecting fallen branches in the forest, often unaware that it was illegal to do so.

Czech state forests, which only sell wood for domestic consumption, had to limit the amount sold to private individuals to prevent speculative purchases.

In Poland, demand for small firewood from state forests increased by 46 percent and for large firewood by 42 percent by the end of August, compared to a year earlier. That was even before autumn, when the demand is the highest.

“Of course, there is more interest in firewood in forest areas because it is the cheapest fuel available today,” said Michal Gzowski, a spokesman for Poland’s state forests. “Twigs are probably the cheapest heating material in EU countries.”

He noted that there is more and more firewood theft, which has always occurred to some extent.

This photo shows piping and valve systems at the reception and transfer station of the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline in Lubmin, Germany, on June 21, 2022.
This photo shows the piping and valve systems at the Nord Stream 1 gas receiving station and transfer station in Lubmin, Germany, June 21, 2022. Photo: Stefan Sauer/dpa via AP, File

To prevent theft, the forestry department in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia is experimenting with GPS tracking devices hidden among logs, spokeswoman Nicole Fiegler said.

There has not been a sudden increase in grand theft, but the price increases have fueled concerns among small timber owners that they will suffer heavy losses if a shipment of logs is stolen.

“It’s more of an anxiety and fear situation,” Fiegler said, given the increasing value of firewood.

Forest managers in the neighboring region of Hesse have been using GPS trackers since 2013 and say they have managed to solve several thefts this way.

Austrian police last week warned of an increase in scams by people claiming to sell firewood and wood pellets online, saying they had raided several companies in the country suspected of raising prices.

The German Pellet Institute also warned buyers to beware of fake sellers who asked for payment in advance and then disappeared.

Prices for firewood and pellets, small cylinders of sawdust that can be used in residential central heating systems, rose 85 percent in August from a year earlier, according to Germany’s statistics agency.

Pellet prices per ton fell by 2.6 percent in October, but were still 200 percent more than a year earlier, according to the Institute. However, pellet heating is cheaper than natural gas for those who can use it, the organization says. Gas costs 20.9 lipa per kilowatt hour of heating, and pellets 14.88 lipa.

The price of firewood has also risen in Britain.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in demand” as energy prices rise, said Nic Snell, director of Certainly Wood, which bills itself as the UK’s biggest firewood supplier with around 20,000 tonnes sold a year.

Snell estimated that his company’s kiln-dried wood is 15 percent to 20 percent more expensive than last year and “could be more as the weather gets colder.”

Demand for domestically produced firewood is driven by the higher price of imported alternatives from countries such as Latvia and Lithuania. Transport costs, mainly fuel, have increased the price of imported firewood, which used to be cheaper than British firewood and is now more expensive.

In Denmark, the demand for wood stoves is growing at the same time as the demand for wood itself. Searches for wood pellets have grown by about 1,300 percent in the past year, according to Danish outlet DBA.

The government and environmentalists have warned Danes who plan to burn wood to be aware of the risks: fire can pose a health risk and smoke contributes to particulate pollution.

There is also the impact of cutting down a large number of trees on the environment.

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