Building From Wood Could Help Fight Climate Change

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Foresters and environmental scientists recently calculated how increased use of wooden construction materials could reduce carbon dioxide pollution and fossil fuel demand. By using more wood, the need for concrete and steel would decrease, thereby reducing pollution produced during their production.

Global carbon dioxide pollution could be reduced by between 14 to 31 percent by using wood in place of steel and concrete, estimated the team of scientists from Yale University and the University of Washington.

Twelve to 19 percent of fossil fuel use could be eliminated as well, especially if scrap lumber were burned for heating, cooking or electricity production in biomass power plants.

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However to meet an increased demand for wooden construction materials, the sustainable harvest of forests would have to increase to at least 34 percent of total annual wood growth.

Increasing wooden construction wouldn’t mean turning ancient redwoods into skyscrapers. Managed forests could meet the needs for more wood without resulting in increased deforestation and loss of biodiversity, suggested the researchers.

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“It is highly likely that the world could harvest much more wood and still harvest sustainably – that is, harvest no more than is growing,” wrote the study authors in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry, which published their results.

“Forest harvest creates a temporary opening that is needed by forest species such as butterflies and some birds and deer before it regrows to large trees,” said lead author Chadwick Oliver, professor of forestry and environmental studies at Yale in a press release. “But conversion to agriculture is a permanent loss of all forest biodiversity.”

Some large, wooden construction projects have already been completed, including the nine-story Stadthaus in  Murray Grove, London, England, a high-load wood bridge in Quebec, Canada and an aircraft hangar in Montreal, Canada, noted the authors.

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The wood used in these building not only reduced the need for more polluting materials, the lumber itself locked away carbon. Trees inhale carbon dioxide and use some of that carbon to produce lignin and cellulose, two durable chemicals which give wood much of its strength.

In nature, the cellulose and lignin break down and release their carbon or are eaten by termites that fart methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. When used in construction, the wood can trap the carbon for decades, even centuries.

Photo: The Stadthaus – Murray Grove Tower, a nine-story building made largely of wooden construction materials. Credit: Will Pryce/Arcaid/Corbis

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