Tackle Climate Change – Use Wood!

Tackle Climate Change – Use Wood!

  • Average global temperatures are rapidly increasing as a result of carbon emissions, and an estimated 38% of carbon emissions come from the construction industry. 
  • While it may seem contradictory to use wood to tackle climate change, wood products store carbon due to being a part of the carbon cycle. 
  • Europe’s forests already store a lot of carbon, but only a comparably small amount of carbon is stored in structural timber. 
  • Wood takes less energy to prepare for use than other building materials, and sawmills can more easily transition to carbon neutrality than other building plants, meaning that wood products can quickly become carbon positive, storing more carbon than they produce. Young trees in re-seeded forests also store more carbon than the older trees they replace. 
  • Individual sawmills and timber businesses can best help broader emissions issues the industry faces by achieving low-carbon or carbon-neutral status, and supporting projects that give back to the environment. 

The State of Our Planet

After a string of some of the hottest summers and coldest winters in recent history, few businesses and governments can continue to deny the essential truth. Not only is mankind’s effect on the climate real, but it is escalating at a rapid pace in the face of uncontrolled emissions. If they continue at the current levels, the Earth’s average global temperature may increase by up to 4°C by the end of this century. Even a one-degree increase spells disaster for large sections of ice shelves and rising sea levels threaten significant portions of low-lying countries.

 

Well over half of emissions (an estimated 55-70%) responsible for temperature increases come from the release of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, and an estimated 38% of CO2 emissions come from the construction industry. The largest and most essential change would be widespread adoption of renewable resources, but that path is often blocked by political and economic challenges. Still, there are other actions individual businesses can take in the meantime. In the construction industry, this includes increasing the amount of wood used in construction.

 

How Can Building with Timber Help the Environment?

This may seem like an unrelated move, but it’s actually a very wise strategy to address climate concerns, because of the carbon cycle. In effect, all carbon moves through the atmosphere within a closed loop, known as the carbon cycle. CO2 in the atmosphere isn’t only released and dispersed; instead, it moves inside the atmosphere, passing between carbon sinks and carbon stores. 

 

Carbon sinks are items that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release – for instance, plants and the earth – while carbon stores are items that contain a fixed amount of carbon. Among the largest carbon sinks in the world are the Earth’s forests, which through the process of photosynthesis absorb huge quantities of CO2 and produce oxygen.

Wood as Carbon Storage

Between them, Europe’s forests store roughly 9.5 million tonnes of carbon. Continuing forest growth (510,000 hectares a year) means this number is only increasing. While forests function as sinks, wood products produced from these trees can function as stores. A cubic metre of wood (pictured for reference) usually stores 0.9 t of CO2 for its total lifespan in any given form that it takes. This not only includes the first product it’s made into, but products made via recycling, reconstituted wood, and salvage. CO2 is only released back into the atmosphere later, when the wood is finally incinerated or decomposes. 

The average life cycle of wood products can vary from two months for pulped wood products (newspapers, cardboard, etc.) to 75 years or more for structural wood. Currently less than 1% of the UK’s annual carbon emissions are stored in structural timber, but this number could increase dramatically if timber became a trendier cladding or construction item. Not to mention, a rise in timber would create a drop in concrete, steel, and other materials that produce emissions in their construction.

Wood Stores, Coal Pollutes

Individually, this doesn’t seem like a huge reduction. But, bear in mind that Logie Timber – a small-scale artisanal lumber mill – produces an estimated 850 cubic metres of wood per year. That’s enough to store all the carbon produced in little over an hour of continuous use by a 1000 Mwe coal plant, one of the largest-scale plants in operation in the UK. This year, through the installation of a new saw line, production will increase dramatically. With the estimated 7,500 cubic metres the new saw line will produce, that’s enough to store almost ten hours’ worth of carbon from that same plant! 

That stored carbon might not be released for decades to come, allowing the expansive forest growth taking place in Europe and other areas to convert the excess carbon more efficiently in that time. A building made from manufactured timber stores more carbon per square metre than a living rainforest, and the newly planted trees that replace them often absorb carbon faster than older forests. Increasing the scale of timber and logging industries can be a net benefit for any nation that wants to reduce carbon emissions. 

Of all these construction materials, wood also produces the least emissions through its production. As such, timber plants need to make far fewer reductions to reach carbon neutrality than concrete or steel plants. When you combine this carbon reduction with the fact that Logie Timber plans to achieve complete carbon neutrality by the end of 2023 via a number of emission-reducing measures (such as solar panels, electric forklifts and no chemical use), the business as a whole will be a net carbon reduction. Given time, proper investment and the right planning, there’s no reason other timber companies couldn’t do the same and contribute to a brighter, cleaner future for the construction industry. 

Environmental Interview

To give an experienced environmental perspective, here’s what Olly Wilson, Logie Timber employee and qualified conservationist, had to say about some of the timber industry’s current environmental hurdles and what Logie has been doing to address them…

What are some relevant problems the timber industry is facing, in terms of renewable materials, ecological sustainability, and carbon emissions? 

In terms of the immediate threat, I’d say you have to balance that with the recent price increases for construction materials – we were actually just talking about the increase in the price of cement this morning.

Timber is also rising in price, so if you’re going to spend that money on something, it’s often easier for companies to spend it on materials that are longer-lasting than timber, which in some cases needs to be replaced in 25-30 years.

There was a study which asserted that most modern construction work often has an 70-30 ratio, with 70% being non-renewable, using materials such as polyurethane for insulation, and then just timber for cladding on the outside. We should ideally invert the ratio and get 30% non-renewable cladding on the outside to 70% renewable products (such as timber) used to actually make the structure.

Cement can be a horrible product, and one study that everyone uses to illustrate that is with windmills. An Olympic swimming pool sized cement foundation is used for an electric windmill, which is then sat in the ground for a long time, affecting the soil. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to use these materials, just so long as they’re kept in use.

It’s like fiberglass. That was something that was used a lot, but its use has halted because of how distinctly non-renewable it is. We should also be ideally re-incorporating elements of old, disused buildings into new builds.

There are timber-framed buildings still standing from Edwardian times. Wood is good, and, if used right, it can last for a long time, especially if you then clad the building in something longer lasting. Pat Borer, for instance, is a good example of an architect who believes that a building shouldn’t necessarily last forever. You work to keep it maintained, but once it’s abandoned it ideally shouldn’t leave a footprint.

What is Logie is doing specifically to try and address some of these problems? 

I think producing a high-quality product really does make a difference, because a lot of things about these issues are based on mindset. Your first bite is with the eye, and seeing something that looks good, is high-quality, and that the mill can decisively say, ‘This will last X amount of time,’ means a lot to people. 

Making sure it’s all heartwood and that there are no infections helps a lot as well. I think that quality is something that’s a given with us.

As a sawmill, though, you’re not going to make that change yourself. You’re supplying a demand. So, if there’s a project coming up that Logie Timber itself believes in – that’s about being greener and sustainable – we can agree with that and support that as best we can.

Keeping it local is another thing, too. Use what you’ve got around you. For a lot of buildings, you get material imported from everywhere, so using local materials is a big way to reduce overall shipping emissions. And it’s just not necessary to ship wood in when we have so much of our own timber here. 

Green Supply for Green Demands

Creating sustainably sourced, high-quality wood planks and building materials in turn allows the companies that buy from specialist sawmills like Logie to create climate-positive products – a benefit they can market and advertise to the consumer.

An excellent example of this is a company Logie often partners with, the architectural firm Makar. In addition to its beautiful range of catalogue offerings and ability to custom-design, Makar combines well-planned modern engineering techniques with high-quality, sustainable wood. In so doing, the team combines the best aspects of wood-centric housing construction – energy efficiency, ventilation, beneficial aesthetic qualities – with the added promise that they and their suppliers are carbon-neutral.

This means that a climate-conscious buyer not only gets the benefit of adding very little carbon to the atmosphere in the process of building their house, but their house will actually help the planet over time by storing carbon in its frame. One of Makar’s projects, a new sawmill for the Logie Estate, will use 110m3 of wood in total, storing 99 tonnes of carbon. 

 

Local Jobs, Global Benefit

As well as increasing the overall number of carbon stores, new timber businesses provide ecological and economic benefits for local forest areas. One of the primary concerns in forest conservation, especially in poorer rural areas, is the lack of job opportunities an unharvested forest is seen to provide. 

In some countries like Brazil, deforestation is seen as an economic saviour rather than an ecological disaster. Incorporating sustainable re-planting practices allows for the continual growth of woodland to accompany an increase in available jobs. The prosperity of a local community has often been seen only in what can be extracted from the area’s natural resources, so that urban spaces can profit. However, with modern technologies and conservation methods, that no longer needs to be the case.

In Summary

Through its provision of local jobs and supplying high-quality, ethical and sustainable wood to local businesses, Logie Timber’s carbon policy can benefit local economies and people just as much as it can reduce emissions and help combat global warming.

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