Could Wooden Buildings be a Solution to Climate Change?

The BBC’s article, “Could Wooden Buildings be a Solution to Climate Change?” looks not only at the carbon content of mass timbers such as cross-laminated timbers, but also at CO2 in forests. Some bloggers here will disagree with the author’s assertions. In my view, we have in mass timber structures a means of addressing the apparent increase in mortality in western US forests, including the iconic Douglas-fir: More mortality means more GHGs are released via decomposition and wildfire. Instead of leaving dead trees where they are, we ought to use some of them (not all dead and dying trees, of course, and not from reserved areas, but in areas on National Forests and elsewhere where harvesting is allowed) to produce CLTs, etc., which leads to a reduction in the use of steel and concrete, the world’s two largest sources of GHGs. In stands where mortality is low, but likely to increase, active forest management would both prevent or delay mortality and provide raw materials for mass timbers.

Here’s an excerpt from the article. Read on….

Recently there have been calls for tree planting on a colossal scale to capture CO2 and curb climate change. However, whilst young trees are efficient and effective carbon sinks, the same is not so true for mature trees. The Earth maintains a balanced carbon cycle – trees (along with all other plants and animals) grow using carbon, they fall and die, and release that carbon again. That balance was knocked out of kilter when humans discovered ancient stores of carbon in the form of coal and oil, which had been captured during previous carbon cycles, and began burning them, releasing the resulting CO2 into our atmosphere far faster than the current cycle can deal with.

Many pine trees in managed forests, such as the European spruce, take roughly 80 years to reach maturity, being net absorbers of carbon during those years of growth – but once they reach maturity, they shed roughly as much carbon through the decomposition of needles and fallen branches as they absorb. As was the case in Austria in the 1990s, plummeting demand for paper and wood saw huge swathes of managed forests globally fall into disuse. Rather than return to pristine wilderness, these monocrops cover forest floors in acidic pine needles and dead branches. Canada’s great forests for example have actually emitted more carbon than they absorb since 2001, thanks to mature trees no longer being actively felled.

Arguably, the best form of carbon sequestration is to chop down trees: to restore our sustainable, managed forests, and use the resulting wood as a building material. Managed forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) typically plant two to three trees for every tree felled – meaning the more demand there is for wood, the greater the growth in both forest cover and CO2-hungry young trees.

12 thoughts on “Could Wooden Buildings be a Solution to Climate Change?”

  1. I did not read the original article, but I wonder how much carbon is burned logging, transporting, sawing and processing wood from forest to building? As for carbon sequestration in old growth (much more than 80 years old), I suspect that growth (carbon capture) almost equals decay, but that there continues to be some carbon sequestration in organic soil, at least in some forest types. There are many aspects to this issue.

    • Good questions James.

      See: Oregon State University Research shows that big timer is Oregon’s leading source of GHG emissions

      I’d also like to point out that, in my opinion, there are too many damn people on the planet. Over-population is really the root of most all of our serious global problems. Some of the world’s over-population is directly the result of various religions. While some of the over-population is caused by a lack of access to basic birth control. The world population has doubled since I was born in 1972. If the global population doubles, or quadruples, in the next 47 years (as human population tends to grow exponentially), the world may be looking at 16 billion to 32 billion people by about 2065. For whatever it’s worth, I was born “broken” so got “fixed” at 26, as my wife and I chose to have no kids.

    • James A Bailey – “but I wonder how much carbon is burned logging, transporting, sawing and processing wood from forest to building?”

      Well, what about alternative energy schemes ??? How much carbon does strip mining for rare earth elements require for building alternatives and other Techie World electronic devices, how much diesel for industrial truck/rail transporting, plus all the coal/oil used in manufacturing of Solar Panels and wind turbines, the oil used in transporting finished product to the clear cut deforested site or land stripped of chaparral and/or other vegetation for the final installation of a less than stellar technology that requires natural gas as a backup and massive subsidies to even function for meager profit ??? See, there is no good answer here and there is no answer for reversing climate change either. Blaming other humans beings for merely existing also neither a healthy nor productive plan either. It provides nothing more than justification for hatred you feel towards others and coddles and cuddles the nightmmare of resurecting antiquated scientific concepts called Eugenics Programs which badly failed in the past anyway.

      But according to the latest Sci-Fi fad research, grasslands are better than forests, so let’s have a building boom and save the planet. Could really use some emoticons here.

      • Only one comment to your rant. If eugenics is an antiquated scientific concept how do you explain all the breeds of all the domesticated species?

  2. No.

    First, only a small fraction of carbon from logged forests ends up in long-term storage in wood products, most is transferred to the atmosphere. Of all the carbon that is killed and/or exposed to accelerated decay in a logging operation only a small fraction ends up as durable goods and buildings — most ends up as slash, sawdust, waste/trim, hog fuel, and non-durable goods like paper. Some say that converting forest to wood products “delays” emissions, but in fact logging accelerates emissions because they are the result of a process that kills trees that would continue to actively sequester carbon if not logged, and logging involves tremendous waste in the logging process, milling process, construction/manufacturing process.

    Second, the amount of carbon ‘missing’ from our forests vastly greater than the amount of carbon that can be accounted for in wood products storage. BLM’s Western Oregon Plan Revision FEIS covering 2.5 million acres of productive forest lands shows that decades of converting old growth forests to plantations has reduced current forest carbon stores on BLM lands in western Oregon by 149 million tons, while some of that wood was converted into wood products, only 11 million tons of that carbon remains stored in wood products today, so logging our public forests to make wood products results in approximately 13 times more carbon emissions than carbon storage. This is pieced together from WOPR FEIS Figures 3-17 (p 3-221) and Figure 3-18 (p 3-224). If logging was a climate solution, the total carbon in forests, plus carbon in wood products, would be greater than the carbon in unlogged forests. This is clearly not the case.

    Third, logging and reliance on wood products prevents forests from reaching their potential for carbon storage. Shanks (2008) said “There are also losses of carbon that occur during the creation of forest products. These losses to decay and wood products make carbon sequestration slower when harvesting is allowed. The young timberlands that replace older harvested lands grow quickly, but hold less in total carbon stores than their older counterparts; the net sequestration from forest products adds to total carbon stores, but does not come close to the vast amounts of carbon stored in non-harvested older timberlands. This finding differs from other papers that have shown that the highest carbon mitigation can be reached when high productivity lands are used exclusively for wood products creation (Marland and Marland, 1992). The wood products considered in these studies were either long lasting or used for fuel purposes. Allowing harvested timber to be allocated to all types of wood products increases carbon emissions and results in no harvest regimes sequestering more carbon.” Alyssa V. Shanks. 2008. Carbon Flux Patterns on U.S. Public Timberlands Under Alternative Timber Harvest Policies. MS Thesis. March 2008.

    Finally, the “substitution” value of wood products is vastly over-estimated. “Substitution of wood for more fossil carbon intensive building materials has been projected to result in major climate mitigation benefits often exceeding those of the forests themselves. A reexamination of the fundamental assumptions underlying these projections indicates long-term mitigation benefits related to product substitution may have been overestimated 2- to 100-fold. This suggests that while product substitution has limited climate mitigation benefits, to be effective the value and duration of the fossil carbon displacement, the longevity of buildings, and the nature of the forest supplying building materials must be considered. … Conversion of older, high carbon stores forests to short rotation plantations would over the long term likely lead to more carbon being added to the atmosphere despite some of the harvested carbon being stored and production substitution occurring.” Mark E Harmon 2019. Have product substitution carbon benefits been overestimated? A sensitivity analysis of key assumptions. Environ. Res. Lett. in press

  3. It is complex. I don’t suppose it is all one way or the other. A few things that have happened in the PNW is setting side of 90% of our Federal forests into some kind of reserves. This resulted in demise of most locally owned sawmills and greater part of the forestry infrastructure. It also lead to the disappearance of the markets for many of the forest products that use to be harvested and produced from these lands.
    Then add in the ” fire is good for the forest” philosophy and we have ended up with an incredible amount of dead and damaged forest. Even though the FS harvests less that 2% of what is dead in our forests it is more than the current forestry infrastructure can absorb.

    • The evidence shows that small rural mills shut down because they could not compete with the larger, more efficient, mills near the interstate. Not because of the lack of federal log supply.

      85% of the small sawmills in Oregon closed between 1948 and 1962, and during the same period 33% of Oregon’s large sawmills closed.

      See Freudenburg, Wilson, and O’Leary. 1998. “Forty Years of Spotted Owls? A Longitudinal Analysis of Logging Industry Job Losses” Sociological Perspectives 41(1) 1-26, citing Young and Newton. 1979. Capitalism and Human Obsolescence: Corporate Control vs. Individual Survival in Rural America. Landmark Studies.

      Andy Kerr said: Oregon sawmilling capacity in 2012 was one-quarter larger than it was in 1995, the first full year of the Northwest Forest Plan. While Oregon sawmilling capacity increased, the number of mills and jobs both halved. In 1995, cutting one million board feet of logs supported 9.95 jobs/year. In 2012, that same million board feet supported 5.05 jobs/year. Today it takes five acres (about five football fields) of clear-cuts per year to produce one timber job for a year. As industry automation (pronounced “innovation”) continues, it will take even more clear-cutting to produce each of a smaller number of wood products jobs. What about those current and future Oregon jobs that depend on clean water, abundant wildlife, and scenic beauty?

      In the late 1990s, mechanization of the industry had begun in earnest, as reported by the Associated Press in its 1996 article, “Mechanized Timber Harvesting Is a Growth Industry in the Northwest” explained that technology is replacing workers both in the mill and in the forest. “They [timber operators] came to see a tandem of mechanized logging vehicles that, according to spokesmen, allow two workers to do the job of eight or more, minimize environmental damage and increase workplace safety. “This is the future of logging,” said Rex Storm, forest policy analyst for Associated Oregon Loggers Inc. “Everybody realizes that technology is changing this profession.””

      • 2nd, I think the way you are analyzing this is with regard to different industry transitions.

        Another way to think about it is.. if Oregonians are not getting wood from Oregon, they are getting it from somewhere else. Whatever jobs there are are going somewhere else.

        I’m not a believer that Canadian or private California forest practices are any worse that Oregon’s, so I won’t make that argument.

        But whatever $x jobs or income or taxes there are produced, is it better to have them in Oregon for Oregonians, or somewhere else? That’s one of the arguments for preferring local foods (also cost and carbon impacts of transportation), and I don’t see why it would be different for wood products.

        • You don’t grow tomatoes on public lands. “Is it better ….?” That’s the forest planning question for each national forest, and since they are national forests, they are not just for Oregonians. And a lot of people (Oregonians and otherwise) think the answer is “no” (possibly affected by whether the jobs or income are theirs or their community’s).

      • Technology has certainly changed the timber industry. (As it has all our lives)
        Limited federal forests harvests did have a dramatic negative affect on the remaining mills in the late 1990’s and it is continuing today. The limited harvest capacity of our federal forests has also had a dramatic negative affect on the communities surrounded by these forests, not to mention the forests themselves.

  4. Bob: you’re neglecting to include the history of the major ramp-up of federal timber supply immediately following WWII (which, I submit, proved unsustainable), and the consolidation of much of the milling capacity in fewer larger mills with attendant increases in productivity and loss of jobs (similar to the loss of the family farm in ag). Competition is a stubborn thing. And quite vicious, with terminal outcomes for many once healthy businesses. There are ways to retain “relics” (and I use that term with some sadness) but those methods seem unpopular in America’s practice of capitalism.


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