Long-Lived Wood Products Can Benefit the Climate Even More Than We Thought

Metropol Parasol

There are lots of great reasons to make all sorts of things out of wood. It’s beautiful, durable, renewable and strong. It only gets more beautiful with age. It’s biodegradable, and its manufacturing byproducts can be reclaimed for everything from livestock bedding to producing clean power via biomass. But the benefits of boosting the number of wooden buildings and other structures around the world even go beyond all of that, helping to mitigate climate change long after they’re constructed.

Scientists have known for years that living forests store a whole lot of carbon and keep it from being released into the atmosphere. Sustainably managed forests have the potential to absorb one-tenth of the projected global carbon emissions during the first half of the 21st century. The key is keeping up the pace of forest growth through responsible forestry practices. Sophisticated new modern forestry techniques make it possible to mimic the state of old-growth forest habitats to boost carbon absorption rates even while growing and harvesting trees for sale as logs.

But a new study by the University of Finland confirms that timber continues to play a vital role in battling climate change even after it’s harvested and transformed into something new. Timber products lock about 1 ton of carbon dioxide per square meter. Right now, wood is the only construction material that stores carbon from the atmosphere regardless of the frame, insulation or cladding materials used. When their life cycle as buildings are complete, the components can be recycled into new objects to keep the atmospheric carbon locked away.

One of the most important factors in this process is the creation of more long-lived wood products rather than single-use or short-term materials like paper disposables. The world would see even more climate benefits if we started using more wood in place of other materials that require a lot of energy for their production.

The study traced flows of wood in Lithuania and the Czech Republic from the forest to the mill and through the end use of the products.

The results show that conventional carbon accounting methods for harvest wood products may lead to a significant underestimation of the carbon stored in wood products. The study found that in some countries, the annual carbon budget in wood products is 40% higher when calculated with a more detailed method.”

The findings were originally published in International Wood Products Journal, Forests, and Journal of Industrial Ecology. Read the summary here.

Photo: Metropol Parasol by J. Mayer H. Architects

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