Petr, a Czech bricklayer, spends thirty minutes more at work today. After the departure of his colleagues, he walks around the building sites to pick up pieces of abandoned wood.
On a good day, Petr can cram a few kilos of scraps into his van and store them in his garden, knowing that these scraps could save him some Czech crowns next winter.
“Of course, it’s not properly dried or of good quality, but anything that saves me from using an hour of gas will help me,” he said.
In the midst of a Europe-wide energy crisis, the Czech Republic has seen one of the biggest cost increases. The July 2022 household energy price index found the country paid the most for electricity when adjusted for purchasing power parity.
Anecdotally, people say they now pay almost as much for energy bills as they do for mortgages or rent, despite the Czech government imposing price caps in mid-September.
It’s obvious to all that Europe is heading for a winter of discontent, compounded by an expected cold spell across the continent due to the impact of La Nina, a climate phenomenon influenced by colder temperatures in the Pacific. , said the European Center for Research on Means -Range Weather Forecasts, an independent intergovernmental agency, warned earlier this month.
Anticipating soaring energy bills, more and more Europeans are turning to wood for heating this winter.
But the story is the same across the continent: firewood prices are skyrocketing, warehouses have filled their waiting lists until next year and concerns have been raised that it will all lead to major environmental problems.
Government agencies have expressed concerns about illegal logging as people are expected to venture into forests to cut their own fuel, although some politicians have been more lax than others.
Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling party, said in early September that people should “burn almost everything, of course apart from tires and equally harmful things”.
The Hungarian government banned the export of pellets while removing environmental regulations that prevented logging in protected forests.
Prices for wood pellets, a compressed form of woody biomass that generally burns better than regular firewood, have almost doubled to €600 a tonne in France, according to a Bloomberg report.
In Bulgaria, which relies heavily on wood heating for most households, prices have also doubled to nearly €100 per cubic metre. Local Polish media reported last month that firewood prices had already doubled this year. The telegraph reported in August that UK firewood sales had increased fivefold this year.
In July, the EU also banned the import of Russian wood and pellets, and campaigners warn that the price spike will be felt most by the poorest, especially those in central and eastern Europe where households at low incomes tend to depend more on firewood. than gas.
Amid the timber rush, crime reportedly flourished.
German police have warned of a ‘catastrophic’ wave of internet scams as fake online stores claim to be able to offer firewood for a tenth of the going price.
The energy crisis has been mixed news for the continent’s timber industries, according to Paul Brannen, director of public affairs for the European Confederation of Woodworking Industries and the European Sawmill Industry Organisation.
On the one hand, this has been financially damaging for companies that use kiln-drying or sawing plants, which consume a relatively high amount of energy.
“When energy prices were lower, energy costs were around 10% of the sawmill’s total costs. Today, that percentage has at least doubled — and other costs have increased as well,” Brannen said.
On the other hand, there has been an “unprecedented increase” in consumer demand for firewood, pellets and various sawmill residues used for combustion, which has driven up the prices of these products, he added.
This all comes amid an intensified debate over the environmental costs of burning wood.
Some scientists and activists have long argued that burning wood emits more carbon pollution per unit of energy than burning coal.
According to a study published earlier this year by European Public Health Alliance.
Wood-based household appliances are the worst offenders, accounting for €17 billion in health-related costs across Europe, according to the report.
In February, the UK government revised its figures and now estimates that wood burners contribute 38% – up from 17% according to the previous estimate – of small particle pollution.
Martin Pigeon, a researcher and campaigner at Fern, a Dutch-based environmental NGO dedicated to protecting forests, said it will be even more problematic because hastily cut wood will not be dry enough for winter, and will therefore produce even more toxic substances. combustion.
“I can only fear the consequences,” he said.
In May, the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety recommended an amendment to remove primary woody biomass, wood coming directly from forests, from the EU’s recently released Renewable Energy Directive. revised. However, the European Parliament voted in mid-September to reject this change.
However, they voted to gradually reduce the share of primary woody biomass considered as renewable energy. The amount of forest wood harvested to make pellets will be capped at the average harvest between 2017 and 2022. Changes have also been made to industry subsidies.