Using timber in construction slows global warming through carbon capture and will help the UK fulfil its net zero commitment, argues the Wood CO2ts Less campaign
Building with wood can help slow global warming, while the timber industry's offsite capability can contribute to solving the housing problem, says new initiative Wood CO2ts Less, a collaboration between sawmill industry body Swedish Wood, Wood for Good and the UK timber industry.
These advantages can help the government meet two of its targets: to reach Net Zero Carbon by 2050 and, as enshrined in its 2019 manifesto, to ‘continue our progress towards our target of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s’.
While the housing target may be met with some scepticism, a presentation given last autumn at The Institution of Structural Engineers by Gideon Henderson, an adviser on the government’s Net Zero 2050 report and chief scientific adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was encouraging in terms of carbon capture.
Henderson explained how the government recognised there would be some sectors of the economy, such as aviation, shipping and industry, which would be unable to achieve zero carbon by 2050. Consequently, government would need to rely on carbon capture to meet the goal. While new carbon capture technologies are under development to shoulder the bulk of this burden, he identified greater use of wood in construction as one simple and largely cost-free way of capturing carbon. Let’s have more wood buildings, he suggested.
Building in wood from sustainably managed forests contributes to reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere in three ways: by carbon capture in the growing forest carbon sink; by carbon capture in the increasing carbon store of wood products; and by substitution for other, more CO2-intensive materials, such as steel and concrete. According to the European Commission, ‘Meta-analyses of the average impact of using wood instead of concrete suggest an average reduction of 2.1 tons of CO2 per ton of wood products used’1.
This is a message that’s taken up by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC): ‘Using wood in construction provides a long-term store for carbon in the environment… avoided emissions from the production of cement and bricks are an additional advantage.’2
Some figures have been put round this in a recent report by Bangor University, which found that ‘using timber frames rather than masonry can reduce carbon embodied emissions by around 20 per cent per building, while when cross-laminated timber is chosen in place of concrete structures, the effect is even greater, with carbon embodied emissions reduced by around 60 per cent.’3
In the executive summary of its 2019 report, 'UK Housing; Fit for the Future?', the CCC makes a specific recommendation to government: ‘Develop new policies to support a substantial increase in the use of wood in construction’.
More recently, of course, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19, pushing the immediacy of global heating into the background. But it is up to all of us who care about our legacy to our children and grandchildren to turn the talk about re-building the country through a new Green Economy into a reality, by metaphorically and literally Building Back Better – in wood. Building Back Better is an approach to recovery that reduces future vulnerability to environmental, physical, social and economic shocks.
There is no shortage of architects producing inspirational, low energy, low carbon, healthy buildings in wood - as evidenced by the images shown here.
To keep up to date with the best in wood architecture, take a look at Swedish Wood’s free quarterly online magazine Trä!
Wood CO2ts Less is a collective mark of Wood for Good.
1 European Commission. 'A Sustainable Bioeconomy for Europe: strengthening the connection between economy, society and the environment', October 2018.
2 Committee on Climate Change. 'Net Zero - Technical Report', May 2019.
3 Dr Morwenna Spear, et al. 'Wood in Construction in the UK: an analysis of carbon abatement potential', July 2019.