Research in Progress – Combating Climate Change through Sustainable Wood Products

Copyright atelierjones. Used by permission.

Like a raging forest fire, climate change has many fronts. And it won’t be fixed by a singular solution. Heroic systemic changes throughout all sectors are needed in order to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Cars, factory smokestacks, and coal are primary sources that easily come to mind when thinking about GHGs.

But turning a key on a brand-new home, whether apartment or single family? Could that really account for nearly a quarter of CO2 emissions?

A 2018 study titled, “Carbon Emission of Global Construction Sector,” found that global construction in 2009 produced 23% of CO2 emissions. That is 5.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide. And the hunger for new construction has only increased in the years since.

However, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researchers are on the frontlines of sustainable solutions.

Hongmei Gu, FPL research forest products technologist

FPL’s Hongmei Gu and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up with the support of a grant awarded from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for the current research in progress: “Assessing Life-Cycle Environmental Impacts of CLT Mass Timber Buildings in the U.S. Northeast Region.” Cooperators on the project include the University of Washington, Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials (CORRIM), and Atelierjones LLC.

Their goal is to explore avenues to more environmentally sustainable construction through global use of mass timber materials.

Ultimately, the objective is that increased market demand for sustainable wood could become a catalyst for reforestation and improved forest management. And those changes would positively contribute to the battle against climate change in the form of reduced GHG emissions.

With a focus on climate change impact in a range of geographies and forestry systems, the project is developing six case studies of wood product use in the mass timber construction sector that will detail whole-building life-cycle assessments (LCAs). The first phase of the project will compare mass timber and conventionally built concrete buildings in six different geographies. Three of the locations will be in the U.S.

But what does life-cycle assessment really mean and why is it important?

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a method of quantitatively assessing the service-life of a material’s environmental cost, from harvest to disposal. Or in other words, LCA measures the potential impact of a product from the beginning to the end of its life (i.e. cradle to grave).

Like raising a child, the true price of a lifetime is not just in the delivery. Construction has environmental costs throughout each phase of building. LCA is a tool for understanding how those individual costs add up to a complete environmental impact amount.

The six case studies will help answer questions around what possible climate outcomes are associated with an increase in construction timber globally and how much outcomes vary depending on the specifics of wood product use, production, and origin. Additionally, researchers will be looking at the impact an increase in wood product demand might have on wood harvest and forest carbon stocks.

SimaPro LCA software will be used to model LCA impacts from six different building designs and materials used in their construction. Research results will be completed in spring 2020.

Stay-tuned to Lab Notes for further news about this developing research. To find out more about the amazing advancements our scientists are making, visit the Forest Products Laboratory at: