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Timber in the built environment is the solution for carbon storage

Timber’s market share as a building material has been on the rise for a number of years, particularly in the construction of new homes where the use of timber frame has grown from just over 14 per cent in 2001 to approaching a quarter of today’s market.

In the main this has been driven by a growing appreciation of the cost savings offered by offsite engineering and the ability to quickly assemble weather-tight units on site. However timber’s true trump card - its environmental credentials - has historically been hard to evidence.

The timber industry has recently developed a free to use, online LCA resource of accessible environmental performance data covering every aspect of the life-cycle of timber products, from forestry, transportation and manufacturing, through to the various end of life options.

With most large-scale projects now requiring contractors and specifiers to provide data on embodied carbon and a range of other environmental indicators it’s a development that been long overdue.

Targets good for timber

Six months on from its launch, all manner of professionals within the industry from architects to engineers are now using the data to model forthcoming projects and compare the environmental impact of different materials. The LCA data is presented in an EPD format and covers a wide range of structural products.

Judging by the latest EU climate change targets, agreed in October, this data is going to become even more relied upon by construction professionals.

“The targets will no doubt usher in a renewed focus on the sustainability of the built environment”

The targets (aiming for a 40 per cent reduction in emissions across the EU and up to 30 per cent energy efficiency improvements) will no doubt usher in a renewed focus on the sustainability of the built environment which is still the single biggest carbon emitter

The targets should be good news for the timber industry. Trees require little more than sunlight and water to grow, while the processing and manufacturing of timber products requires only very low energy inputs compared to other materials or manufactured products. It is a highly efficient, low-energy manufacturing chain.

Timber products also have exceptional insulating qualities, helping keep our homes naturally warm.

Moreover, trees actually absorb carbon dioxide as they grow and store carbon in wood. This carbon is then stored indefinitely until end of life.

Potential for achievement

Research from our lifecycle database shows that timber products actually absorb and store more carbon dioxide than is emitted as a result of their entire manufacturing process – arriving on site with a carbon negative footprint. These qualities mean timber effectively offers the construction industry the option of building with carbon, not emitting it.

To demonstrate, we used our lifecycle data to calculate that a three-bed, timber-framed house typically stores 19 tonnes of CO2. By scaling this up to Labour’s housing target of delivering 200,000 homes annually, this means we could store an additional 4m tonnes of the greenhouse gas every year.

Of course, not all housing needs will be met by building three-bed semi-detached housing, but it demonstrates what could be achieved, particularly considering that the government is already mobilising its planned £1bn investment in funding new Carbon Capture and Storage technology. Storing emissions in our building stock is far safer than underground aquifers.

In the run up to next year’s general election the UK’s lack of housing and climate change will continue to be two key areas of policy discussion. Timber should now be seen as part of the solution to both.

Dave Hopkins is executive director at Wood for Good

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