A successful climate policy needs a change in resources

Change in resources appeal
Timber: The building material with the biggest potential for reducing CO2 emissions

The use of timber in the construction industry as a possible solution to climate change

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges humanity is facing. It is caused by human energy consumption, which contributes to 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With 75% of all greenhouse gases made up of carbon dioxide (CO2), this gas is a significant factor contributing to the increase in the greenhouse effect so relevant for our climate.

In Germany, the building sector alone is responsible for around 40% of energy consumption and about one third of CO2 emissions.  This rate of consumption is similar in other European Union countries. Based on this knowledge, it seems crystal clear that reducing energy consumption – not only during the lifetime of a building, but from the construction period all the way through to dismantling a building – needs to become the focus when looking for a solution to the problem.

We need to look at solutions that contribute significantly and successfully to the fulfilment of the climate protection targets defined by the European Commission. The latter is aiming to contribute to limiting the average global temperature increase to 2 ͦ C and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - in phases - by at least 40% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050 compared to the base year 1990.
This time scale means that we need to look at the most effective measures for achieving our goal of creating a building stock that is largely carbon neutral.

Timber as a predestined building material for reaching emission targets

Looking at the forest - wood - option for achieving emission targets, an increased use of timber as a building material seems to be particularly predestined, due to timber’s ability to act as a carbon sink and a CO2 store:

While a forest builds biomass, the trees absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Wood as a building material grows predominantly without external energy, whilst storing large amounts of solar energy at the same time.  Comparably little quantities of fossil fuels (indirect or grey energy) are needed to supply and process timber into a building product and to then build, maintain and dismantle timber buildings, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions. The CO2 stored within the timber products remains there throughout the service life of the building. Due to their excellent insulating properties, timber building parts and timber buildings show outstanding energy efficiency that protects the climate. 

An increase in the use of timber in the building sector would simultaneously mean a decrease in CO2 intensive building materials, thus relieving the earth’s atmosphere further of greenhouse gases. At the end of the life cycle of a timber based building product, the inherent primary energy stored within the timber can be used to avoid further CO2 emissions by using it as a substitute for fossil fuels.
With regards to the climate change mitigation effect, it should be noted, that in comparison to alternative designs, the use of 1 ton of timber during the construction of a building could avoid the equivalent of 3.9 tons of CO2 emissions.

The use of timber in the building sector therefore already occupies an undisputed leading position with regards to achieving a zero or low carbon economy.
The wood - timber - option consequently represents a prime example for an almost closed-loop energy and material cycle, starting with the raw material extraction in the forest via the construction of buildings to demolishing them at the end of their life cycle.

The use of timber in the building sector as a possible solution to climate change

A variety of national and international scientific studies that were carried out independently of each other have confirmed the excellent capacity of the building material timber as a possible solution to climate protection and energy savings in the construction industry. The results of these studies prove largely unanimously that the use of timber in the construction industry is superior to alternative construction methods with regards to the key parameters of climate protection (global warming potential/ GWP, primary energy consumption/ PE).  With regards to other indicators measuring the environmental impact of a material, timber also shows significantly better property values (ozone depleting potential/ ODP, photochemical ozone creation potential/ POCP, acidification potential/ AP, eutrophication potential/ EP).

Consequently, timber as a building material has a tangible potential to positively support climate change. Taking into account current conditions, however, it is no sure-fire success. We need to further exploit the opportunity of building in a more environmentally and climate friendly way by increasingly using timber and by fully utilizing its inherent climate potentials. On order to successfully do this, Timber Construction Europe proposes the following measures:

  • Construction policies need to be continuously tested and improved, in order to make way for an increased use of renewable raw materials and the latest state-of-the-art technology in new as well as in existing buildings.
  • Green Public Procurement should take a more serious stance in supporting a paradigm shift within society towards a more sustainable building industry by increasing the use of timber in public sector projects. 
  • In addition to educating the public about general sustainable consumer behaviour, more advice about environmental options in building projects - such as the use of timber - needs to be more widely available.  
  • The use of renewable raw materials must be made more attractive by providing tax advantages or government subsidies to private and commercial builders and by recognising the use of timber in construction as a carbon offset contribution. Renewable raw materials as building materials bind carbon dioxide. As timber is responsible for the majority of carbon sequestration in the building sector, using timber products significantly helps to create a positive carbon balance. 




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