The Value of Wood in Construction

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wooden buildings_Norway_Chris Price

Wooden houses, Norway. Credit: Chris Price

Exclusive Interview with MEP Paul Brannen

What role can wood play in meeting the 2030 climate change objectives for the EU and beyond?

Wood – and forests – have long been underestimated as potentially pivotal elements of our global jigsaw called ‘climate change mitigation’. With more than 42% of EU land area covered with forests and other wooded land, trees currently absorb around 10% of EU carbon emissions. However, according to a recent study published by the European Forest Institute, this mitigation contribution in the EU 2030 climate and energy framework can be as high as 22% of all EU CO2 emissions, provided that forest management in the EU is optimized. The role of forests in climate change mitigation has been widely recognized by the UNFCCC, the COP 21 climate agreement and a number of countries which included various afforestation pledges ahead of the last year’s Paris climate conference. However, wood is a non-less potent tool in meeting our climate change objectives than standing trees are. As a natural depository of sequestered solid carbon, wood in a form of harvested wood products stores carbon safely for the entire lifetime of these products, at the same time delivering benefits for the construction and manufacturing sectors constantly in need of raw material. Forests and wood deliver a win-win scenario for the climate and the economy alike.

Is there a trend of more industries using more wood in the construction sector for example? Why?

This trend is clearly visible in construction and manufacturing sectors where wood is being increasingly looked at as a modern, versatile and surprisingly durable raw material, opening a range of attractive opportunities. Considerable advances in material technology, namely the advent of the laminated wood, have produced a unique raw material for the construction sector. In the US or Canada, already 80-90% of one or two family houses are built of wood. Meanwhile, Europe has traditionally been more conservative with its use of bricks, steel and concrete in the construction industry. However, this is starting to change, with European companies leading the innovation pathway sky-high (literally) with the brand-new world’s tallest wooden structures, such as a 14-storey apartment block recently opened in Bergen, Norway. Similar extensive wooden buildings are on the rise throughout Europe, from Austria to the UK. What is more, there is increasing scientific evidence that living and working inside wooden structures delivers considerable benefits for human health and well-being, without compromising construction or fire safety thanks to the advances in laminated wood technology.

wooden helmet

Wooden helmet. Source: Cellutech

Various manufacturing sectors have picked up wood as their new raw material of choice, too. Wood fiber proves to have a broad range of commercial applications in chemistry and manufacturing of everything from t-shirts and bike helmets up to long-lasting batteries or car parts.

It is important to appreciate a general shift on the list of main recipients of wood resources around the world. Traditionally, the pulp and paper industries would consume the bulk of the available resource. These days, however, with less demand for printed communications materials, attention is shifting to wider use of fiber in different manufacturing sectors and as biomass for energy purposes. I am convinced that this trend will continue, driven up primarily by the rising awareness about climate impacts associated with the use of materials derived from oil (like plastics) or requiring plenty of heat to produce (such as concrete or steel). Wood delivers a significant substitution effect by means of avoided emissions.

What are the effects of a more intensive use of wood on biodiversity and ecosystem services?

Wood is a renewable resource but certainly not one available in unlimited quantities. Supplies of wood are also unevenly distributed across the EU, with resource-rich Scandinavia on the one hand and countries with very limited tree-cover, such as the UK, on the other hand. This essentially brings in the question of sustainability of supplies and an urgent need for responsible resource management. That is why more extensive use of wood in the EU climate and energy policies and in the circular economy relies so much on sustainable forest management (SFM), a concept that the EU champions. The EU has clearly a potential to increase its delivery of harvested wood products, coming both from thinnings of existing forests and setting up of new forest plantations on marginal agricultural land. As long as they are sustainably managed, these operations do not pose a threat to biodiversity; on the contrary, SFM can even enhance it. Forests in Europe have long played a multitude of roles, delivering for the climate, environment, landscape, tourism and the economy. We need to ensure that the key environmental services provided by the forests: water and air purification, carbon sequestration, flood protection etc. remain at the heart of any forest management considerations. At the same time, there is clearly a space there for sustainable use of harvested wood products in the European economy.

Grand Canyon National Park

Science & RM Building at Grand Canyon National Park under construction in 2012, Source: Grand Canyon National Park

What are the main challenges associated with using wood and how are these addressed?

In my opinion, the fundamental challenge are the perceptions associated with wood, which have traditionally constrained its wider use in the construction sector or manufacturing. It is very important to showcase successful and often very impressive examples of advanced engineering projects completed with the use of wood as this might eventually contribute to a change in the mindset of the developers, architects, construction professionals or the authorities. Another challenge is certainly the available pool of skills and knowledge with regards to innovative uses of wood. Clearly, more needs to be done in order to equip our engineers and other professionals with the necessary know-how, allowing them to treat wood as their raw material of choice. Finally, the forest-based sector needs a fresh research input in order to explore and implement new technological solutions which can both optimize the use of wood resources as well as open up new ways of using wood in the bioeconomy.

How does the use of wood impact employment?

The use of wood has a tremendous potential to increase employment in a number of different sectors: from forest management, through timber processing, manufacturing of laminated wood, construction sector and all different enterprises that could manufacture innovative and climate-friendly products made of wood. Importantly, more extensive use of wood can deliver a much needed economic boost for the rural areas which could increasingly become not only a sourcing area for timber, but also create centers of small and medium scale wood processing and wood manufacturing. EU circular economy does not only respond to our climate-environment predicament but has also a potential to create a necessary stimulus for the wider population. This is yet another evidence why there is so much to gain from using more wood every day in Europe and elsewhere.


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Paul Brannen is a Member of the European Parliament since 2014 and on the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

 

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