Can building with wood decarbonise construction? Yes but…

By Oliver Gordon
Energy Monitor
May 23, 2023
Category: Special Feature
Region: International

Oliver Gordon

Despite booming investment to increase energy efficiency and lower energy intensity, emissions and energy consumption from buildings and construction have rebounded… and decarbonising the sector is a priority to limit global warming. Aiming to do just that, agriculture ministers in Germany’s states called for the use of wood in new housing projects to be made easier. …Indeed, wood has a far lighter environmental footprint than other building materials like steel and concrete. A recent study by the Potsdam Institute, found that if most of the new urban population were housed in newly built timber buildings, constructed with engineered wood, it would save around 10% of the carbon budget needed to limit global warming to 2°C this century. To be of most use to the climate agenda… timber building materials would need to be maintained through multiple reuse and recycling loops. Today’s timber buildings are not designed with this circularity in mind, and it would require a shift in industry practice to improve longevity, modularity and ease of construction.

Nonetheless, there is a downside to mass-timber construction. Most net-zero scenarios foresee a role for biomass in the energy transition, and if demand for forest products was to grow equally across the economy, there would not be enough biomass to go around. …Debates around forestry and carbon often pit conservation against harvesting and replanting – but there may be a happy middle ground. Ecological forest management, such as ‘close-to-nature’ forestry, promotes a reasoned level of harvest to reap various rewards. By extracting some timber while also considering what vegetation is left to grow, foresters can enhance certain forest traits and functions such as their adaptive capacity. …“We think that timber buildings are a promising climate solution, but only when they also contribute to ecological forestry that protects and restores forest ecosystems,” says Samy Porteron, at ECOS, and author of its recent report

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