Serious about addressing climate change?

Engineers should build environment-friendly wood-frame structures

Since international leaders reached a historic climate change agreement at the United Nations meeting in Paris last month, the conversations have shifted toward how to achieve their ambitious goals.

For the most part, governments, private and public organizations and the general public are in agreement that more needs to be done to address climate change and keep long-term global warming to below 2 C. The bigger question is how?

In its throne speech, the Trudeau government announced it would make “strategic investments in clean technology,” which is encouraging. The cornerstone of such investments and future policy discussion, such as putting a price on carbon, must include a collective movement to build more with wood.

In North America, the building sector accounts for about 37 per cent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That represents a tremendous opportunity to reduce climate change by building more and taller wooden buildings.

A recent study by scientist from Yale and Washington universities estimated global CO2 pollution could be reduced by between 14 to 31 per cent by using wood in place of steel and concrete.

For years, world-renowned Canadian architect Michael Green has championed the benefit of building with wood. Calling it carbon-neutral building, he asks developers to consider the renewable and energy-efficient solutions building with wood presents.

Green estimates a 100,000-square-foot wood building can store 5,300 tons of CO2 and would also contribute 2,100 metric tonnes of avoided greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would be released by alternative materials. The net carbon benefit of a 100,000-square-foot wood building is the equivalent of taking more than 1,400 cars off the road each year.

Manufacturing processes associated with wood products require less energy overall, so they’re responsible for far less GHG emissions than conventional materials. Because forests are renewable, any trees that are harvested are re-grown, largely ensuring the maintenance of our forest carbon stocks.

Best practices in sustainable forest management can also help increase the amount of carbon absorbed by growing forests.

Changes to building codes now permit up to six-storey wood-frame buildings, but many buildings will stand even higher due to ultra-strong mass timber products, such as cross-laminated timber. The University of British Columbia is currently constructing an 18-storey student residence wood building that at 53 metres (174 feet) will rank among the world’s tallest wood buildings.

Environmentally friendly wood-frame buildings also have other benefits. They can be built faster, therefore minimizing disruption. They are often less expensive and require fewer workers than other conventional materials.

For building developers anxious to reduce their carbon footprint, using wood is the obvious strategic environmental choice. Given the momentum coming out of Paris and the federal government’s commitment to addressing climate change, we are optimistic that policy developers, builders, designers and communities alike will redouble their commitment to building with wood.

Paul Lansbergen is the acting president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada.