Scientific study quantifies environmental benefit of wood

The Journal of Sustainable Forestry recently published an article on how effective wood as a building material is at mitigating both greenhouse gas emissions and use of fossil fuels (see Carbon, Fossil Fuel, and Biodiversity Mitigation With Wood and Forests). A summary of the paper is available at The Conversation.

The paper points out that not only does wood store carbon for long periods during its service life, it also displaces other materials such as concrete, steel and aluminium; materials which use very large amounts of fossil fuel energy to manufacture. Building with wood consumes much less energy than most other conventional materials. To illustrate this, compare the following examples. To support one square metre of floor space:

  • a wooden floor beam requires 80 megajoules (mj) of energy and emits 4kg CO2
  • a concrete slab floor requires 290 mj of energy and emits 27kg of CO2
  • a steel beam requires 516 mj of energy and emits 40 kg of CO2

These figures are illustrated on the chart below.

Energy in construction

The paper maintains that "Swapping steel, concrete, or brick for wood and specially engineered wood equivalents would drastically reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, fossil fuel consumption and would represent a renewable resource. What's more, managed properly this can be done without loss of biodiversity or carbon storage capacity."

Whilst wood is a cost-effective building material in many current economies around the world, generally the benefits of sustainability and greenhouse gas mitigation are not recognised (especially not monetarily). More forward-thinking governments and advocacy groups are realising that promoting more widespread use of wood in buildings and construction is "low hanging fruit" for achieving numerous widespread environmental benefits.