So, people seem increasingly interested in the origins of their food, and there are a lot of reasons given for the benefits of buying locally. So do these arguments apply to fuel? I’ve been thinking about this a bit, given that it is #growninbritain week, and it turns out that most of these arguments seem (to me at least) to be just as valid.
Use of local suppliers undoubtedly reduces the carbon emissions of transporting products, but also supports management of local green spaces. Whether you think that management of farmland is better for the environment than the alternative (leaving fields fallow) is open to debate, but there is certainly good evidence to show that in the UK at least, active woodland management tends to lead to greater biodiversity of sites than “non intervention” strategies.
While local food may not necessarily be produced using different methods than the stuff you get from the supermarket, it may be of higher quality as the distance travelled, and time in storage reduces the amount of degradation before sale. Most woodfuels won’t degrade significantly in transit but a few (pellets and briquettes) are vulnerable to mechanical damage – they essentially return to dust. It’s also worth noting that quality of most products seem likely to improve when the social interactions between customer and supplier are strengthened (suppliers are much less likely to sell poor quality products to their friends) and that these stronger social interactions are particularly associated with small scale supply chains.
Development of local small-scale supply chains is often cited as a local, social benefit. Building relationships between groups of suppliers in a relatively small geographic area does appear much more likely than between suppliers to large contracts and consortia. Individual customers typically report having developed better relationships with suppliers when dealing with the same people on a regular basis. This can lead to improvements in general community cohesion, product quality (as above) and may actively increase the accountability of land managers to their neighbours in terms of working practices, management planning etc.
At first glance, the economic argument seems relatively straightforward: Fewer profit making elements in the supply chain should result in lower overheads and therefore a lower price to customers. However, this argument does mask some complexities. Benefits of scale resulted in the global supply chains in the first place, and local food is typically priced as a premium (rather than a bulk) product. in the case of fuel this may not always be the case (cheap logs are everywhere if you don’t care about the quality) however, woodfuel is typically a high-bulk / low-value product which is simply not economic to transport long distances in small quantities. The exceptions to this rule are 1) if the material is so cheap the supplier can transport it and still maintain a decent margin at the point of sale (e.g. firewood imported from the Baltic states) and 2) if the volumes being transported are so vast that the economies of scale outweigh the low margin of the product (e.g. wood pellets from the USA). The other economic argument is that local supply chains result in support for local businesses rather than large national or multinational concerns, and it does seem likely that this is the case.
The development of local supply chains for fuel will certainly reduce the carbon emission of transport of equivalent materials, and if this is woodfuel rather than fossil fuels we gain a benefit of reducing net CO2 emissions as well. Producing more timber from undermanaged UK woodlands would be a pretty good thing for the environment and while British woodlands might not be at immediate risk of deforestation, increasing the market for homegrown timber would certainly be one good way of increasing new woodland planting, and woodland area. Relying on local supply chains to supply fuel may not guarantee good quality, but there are good social reasons why it may help, and in any case – you can always find a local woodsure supplier to take care of that problem. The economic picture is muddy (to be honest) but if you are determined to get the cheapest price whatever the cost (in quality, or environmental terms) then you will almost always be able to find a tree surgeon or farmer who can supply rough-sawn, un-split, green timber for a very good price. If you do choose to buy fuel locally you are likely to be supporting local land management and your local economy which seems like a good thing from my point of view.
So, the question remains: Why are we so keen on local food, and so lukewarm on local fuel?
Will Rolls is an independent consultant with expertise in forestry, biomass and sustainability, with a strong personal interest in developing sustainable systems and practices. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn here