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How trees can help us out of the woods

For some time now most inhabitants of the industrial world have thought of wood as an energy source of the past. Until the oil embargo of 1973, only a few people in developed nations heated their homes with wood, and even fewer companies used the fuel to power industry. As petroleum supplies tighten and heating oil costs soar, however, the advantages of using wood fuel are once again becoming apparent.

Now millions of Americans warm their houses with wood stoves, and hundreds of factories are using wood to run their boilers and to operate machinery. In developing countries where this traditional fuel has remained the predominant form of energy used, wood will play an even greater role, as it meets the energy needs of at least half the world's population. By the end of this century, wood fuel use around the world is likely to increase by at least 50 percent.

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Only in the last 300 years, a brief pause in the world's long history, has the importance of wood fuel dimmed, and it now constitutes 8 percent of the global energy budget. With the advent of fossil fuels -- first coal in the 17th and 18th centuries, then oil in the latter part of the 19th -- the contribution of wood energy diminished in the industrial world. In the United States, for example, wood met at least three-quarters of the nation's energy needs in 1870. By 1900, its contribution had slipped to 25 percent, and it finally reached a low point of a little under 2 percent in 1972. Wood has always provided a modest amount of fuel for heating and cooking in well-forested areas of Europe, such as Sweden and Finland, but for Europe and Russia as a whole wood today represents only 3 percent of energy consumption.

The rekindled interest in humanity's oldest fuel is evident throughout the industrial world. Wood stove sales in the United States, for example, clearly reflect the growing realization that it often pays to heat a home with the traditional fuel. In 1974, fewer than 100,000 wood-fired stoves were sold annually in the U.S. In 1981, sales are running close to a million a year. And if Congress approves the proposed tax credit for wood stoves, sales could increase dramatically.

In industry, the recent availability of standardized forms of wood fuel, such as wood chips and pellets, has boosted the sales of wood-fired boilers. Prior to the oil embargo, these boilers. Prior to the oil embargo, proportion of total boiler production in the US; now they represent at least 5 percent of sales. Wood-products manufacturers, utility companies, and ethanol producers are leading the field in industry's return to wood fuel in both the West and the third World.

Wood alcohol can also help the world face the difficulties ahead as fossil fuels become scarce. Wood as a liquid fuel has several advantages over ethanol, the other alcohol fuel derived from plants.

Ethanol is produced mainly from crops, such as corn or sugar cane, and in the US is mixed with gasoline and sold as gasohol. Brazil is pioneering the technology of running cars on pure ethanol in an effort to escape the high cost of importing 85 percent of its petroleum. But as more crop production is diverted from the table to the automobile tank, food prices are likely to soar.

Trees, on the other hand, can be grown on marginal soils and can thus contribute to solving the world's energy problems without threatening the survival of millions of people who barely exist on inadequate diets.

Although wood wil be increasingly relied upon to meet our energy needs, as a liquid fuel it cannot be considered a replacement for petroleum. Methanol could never be produced in sufficient quantities to fuel the more than 400 million vehicles currently on the world's highways. Conservation efforts and a vigorous tree-planting program are called for if the global community is to pass into the postpetroleum age with as little disruption as possible. Cars must be designed to be even more fuel-efficient than Detroit claims the new models are. And buildings should be more tightly insulated to reduce heat loss and minimize the amount of wood needed to heat them.

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Governments and international lending institutions are realizing that in order to guarantee wood supplies on a sustained yield basis, more emphasis must be placed on reforestation and on boosting the productivity of existing forests through careful management. The World Bank, for example, has increased the amount of funds channeled to forestry projects tenfold in the last decade. And over a 10-year period, citizens of South Korea planted 643,000 hectares of trees , as much as half the area planted to their principal crop, rice.

To satisfy the projected demand for wood fuel in the third world, the rate of reforestration will have to be accelerated by at least a factor of five. While the task confronting developing nations is staggering, the example of South Korea is being followed in other countries. Trees are no longer viewed as an obstacle to development, a protective cloak that must be stripped away for settlement and industry. Rather, forests are viewed increasingly as a hedge against inflation and as a valuable energy source.