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Last updated: 20 March 2024

The Environmental Impact of Wood Construction: Is It a Sustainable Choice?

Is building with wood a sustainable choice?

The debate around the environmental sustainability of building with wood or in construction is complex, with various factors influencing its impact on the planet.

As the world grapples with climate change and the urgent need to reduce carbon footprints, the construction industry has turned a keen eye toward materials that offer environmental benefits.

Though wood has been a fundamental building material throughout human history. It is appreciated for its versatility, aesthetic qualities, and, more recently, potential environmental benefits. However, the sustainability of wood construction is complex and requires a complete understanding of forestry practices, carbon sequestration, and the lifecycle of wood products.

But is building with wood bad for the environment? Let's delve into the facts and figures to understand the broader picture.

What do we mean by building with wood exactly?

Building with wood refers to using timber as a primary material in constructing structures such as houses, buildings, and other architectural forms. This method encompasses a variety of techniques and materials, ranging from traditional timber framing to modern engineered wood products. 

Timber is appreciated for its natural aesthetic, versatility, and durability, and it is used in various applications, including frames, beams, floors, and even entire building structures. 

Modern technology has enabled the construction of larger and more complex wooden structures, often called mass timber or engineered wood products.  Engineering these wood products, such as laminated veneer lumber (LVL), cross-laminated timber (CLT), and glued laminated timber (glulam), is done by manufacturing bonding layers of wood together. 

Environmental impact of building with wood

Building with wood can have both positive and negative impacts on the environment. On the positive side, wood is a renewable resource that can be sustainably harvested and managed. It can sequester carbon stored in the wood for the structure's life, potentially reducing the building's carbon footprint. 

However, sourcing wood from sustainably managed forests is crucial to ensure minimal impact on ecosystems and biodiversity. 

One of the major concerns associated with building with wood is deforestation. If not managed sustainably, timber extraction for construction purposes can destroy forests vital for carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and maintaining ecological balance. 

However, wood has a unique advantage in terms of its carbon footprint. Trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow, making wood a carbon-neutral material when harvested sustainably. When used in construction, wood continues to store this carbon, potentially for decades, thus contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

To illustrate the environmental impact of wood, let’s consider the table below:

Impact typeMeasurementGlobal perspective
Annual Deforestation10 million hectaresPrimarily in the tropics
Daily Loss27,000 hectaresHighlighting the rapid rate of loss
Carbon EmissionsVariesLower for sustainably sourced wood

However, the entire lifecycle of wood, including harvesting, processing, and transportation, must be considered to understand its environmental impact fully. 

What is so bad about wood for the environment?

The primary concern with wood as a building material is deforestation. The removal of trees at a rate faster than they can regrow leads to habitat destruction loss of biodiversity, and contributes to climate change. It is estimated that 1,000 species become extinct annually. 

Deforestation is also a significant contributor to climate change, as trees play a crucial role in carbon sequestration, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Turning trees into usable wood products can also involve energy-intensive manufacturing processes, contributing to carbon emissions. 

When forests are cleared, this carbon storage capacity is reduced, up to 4.8 billion tonnes of CO2/year. The carbon stored in trees is released into the atmosphere, exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions. 

What is the impact of wood?

Total impact per year

Globally, deforestation accounts for about 10 million hectares lost annually, significantly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. This loss impacts the carbon cycle and affects water, soil health, and biodiversity. 

According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the global production of wood products since  2018 is over 4.2 billion cubic meters, equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 600 million cars.

Impact per day

The loss equates to about 27,000 hectares of forest daily, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable forest management practices. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the world loses 27 football fields of forests every minute, equivalent to 18 million football fields annually.

This loss of forests contributes to climate change, as forests act as carbon sinks and help to regulate the Earth's climate.

Impact per usage

The impact of wood usage varies depending on the application. For construction, wood can be a more sustainable option compared to materials like steel or concrete, as it requires less energy to produce and can store carbon.  For instance, wood from sustainably managed forests can have a lower environmental impact than wood from areas with rampant deforestation.

However, when wood is used for energy production, mainly through burning, it can release more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels for the same amount of energy produced.

Is burning wood bad for the environment?

Wood burning releases various pollutants that can harm the environment and human health. For instance, when wood is burned, the carbon stored in the tree is released as CO2

Moreover, wood smoke contains fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the atmosphere. This degrades air quality and poses health risks like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, methane release is a potent greenhouse gas and black carbon, which can accelerate snow and ice melting when deposited on their surfaces. 

Comparison with other materials

Wood is often touted for its lower environmental impact than traditional construction materials like steel and concrete. The production of concrete (80.9 kg CO2 per tonne) and steel (73.1 kg CO2 per tonne) is energy-intensive and generates significant CO2 emissions. In contrast, wood requires less energy and can be sourced from sustainably managed forests. 

Moreover, wood is biodegradable and can be recycled or repurposed at the end of its life cycle, reducing its environmental footprint. 

MaterialCO2 Emissions (kg per 1,000 kg produced)Energy consumptionRenewableBiodegradableEnd of life
Wood< 100 kgLowYesYesRecyclable/Compostable
Brick> 300 kgModerateNoNoNon-recyclable
Steel> 2,000 kgHighNoNoRecyclable with high-energy
This table illustrates that wood has significantly lower carbon emissions and energy consumption than brick and steel, highlighting its environmental advantages.

Comparative Environmental Impacts

Research comparing the environmental impacts of wood, steel, and concrete in building construction has found that:

  • A steel-framed home uses 17 per cent more energy, has 26 per cent more global warming potential, and emits 14 per cent more air emissions than a wood-framed home.
  • A concrete-framed home uses 16 per cent more energy, has 31 per cent more global warming potential, and emits 23 per cent more air emissions than a wood-framed home.

These findings underscore the environmental advantages of using wood over steel and concrete regarding embodied energy, carbon emissions, and overall sustainability.

However, the key to maximising wood's environmental benefits lies in responsible sourcing, sustainable forest management, and efficient manufacturing processes.

Statistics, facts, and figures about wood and building with wood

Wood and wood-based materials play a pivotal role in the construction industry, offering a blend of structural integrity, environmental sustainability, and aesthetic appeal. 

Let’s delve into the key statistics, facts, and figures about wood and its use in building construction, drawing on recent analyses and studies.

Environmental Impact of Wood in Construction

  • Substituting conventional building materials with mass timber can significantly reduce construction phase emissions.
  • Each cubic meter of wood can bind approximately one ton of CO2, helping to alleviate the greenhouse effect.
  • Forests in Europe grow by about 840 million m³ every year, with roughly one-third of this growth remaining in the forests.

Global usage and production of wood

  • Approximately 4 billion m³ of wood is harvested annually, with 50% used for energy and a significant portion used for construction. 
  • Global wood consumption has been quantified at over 4.5 billion m³ only in 2022, with a 20-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 0.7% per year.
  • The split of global wood usage is 50% as fuel, 20% for paper/pulp, and 30% for longer-lasting materials.
  • In the United States, 94% of new homes completed in 2022 were wood-framed.
  • Wood consumption varies significantly across regions, with developed countries typically having higher per capita consumption rates.

Wood building materials by region

  • The top timber producers include the United States, Russia, and China.
  • Germany and Japan imported approximately five billion GBP worth of wood building materials.
  • China leads in wood-based panel production with 41% of the global share, followed by the United States at 13%.
  • North America has more certified forests than anywhere else in the world.
  • The North American prefab wood building market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.5% by 2028
  • European forests, for example, grow by approximately 840 million m³ yearly, with about one-third of this growth remaining in the forests.

Wood in prefabrication and the market

  • The global prefab wood building market is estimated at 33.6 billion GBP and is expected to register a CAGR of over 5.5%.
  • Asia-Pacific is estimated to grow at the highest CAGR in the prefab wood building market.
  • In 2021, wood framing remained the most dominant construction method for single-family homes in the United States.

Wood and the environment

  • Building with wood can decarbonise construction, as wood has a lighter environmental footprint than steel and concrete.
  • Using wood for half of the new urban buildings could reduce emissions by 0.15 billion tCO2e per year.
  • The use of wood in construction is particularly prevalent in North America and Europe.
  • According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) analysis of Census Bureau data, 92% of new homes completed in 2021 were wood-framed. This represents an 8% increase over 2020, with 895,000 wood-framed homes completed in 2021. 

Top largest economies building with wood

Wooden buildings significantly impact the construction industry, with some of the world's largest economies embracing timber as a key material.

Based on the available data, the top countries or regions contributing significantly to the annual wood production, either through direct lumber production or through the construction of large-scale wooden structures, are as follows:

1. United States

The United States leads in timber production, focusing primarily on softwood timber, including species like pine, spruce, and fir. With abundant forest resources across various regions, the U.S. exports wood products, particularly to China, Canada, and Mexico. The country is also recognised for promoting sustainable forestry practices.

2. China

China ranks as one of the largest producers of lumber, with a production volume of 178 million cubic meters as of 2022. The rapid economic growth in China has surged the demand for wood products, making it heavily reliant on imports. Additionally, China has implemented afforestation programs to increase domestic timber production and manage forest resources efficiently.

3. Russia

Russia, with its extensive forest cover, particularly in Siberia, is the second-largest timber producer. The country's forests are rich in spruce, pine, and birch. Russia is committed to sustainable forestry practices and has been stopping illegal logging.

4. Canada

Canada is known for its vast forests and focuses on producing softwood timber like spruce, pine, and fir. It ranks fourth in timber production but is a global leader in sustainable forestry practices, with a significant portion of the world's certified forests.

5. Brazil

Brazil's rich forest resources, including the Amazon rainforest, is the fifth-largest timber producer. The country produces tropical hardwoods and has made strides in sustainable forest management and combating illegal logging.

6. Sweden (Stockholm Wood City)

Sweden is set to build the Stockholm Wood City in the Stockholm neighbourhood of Sickla, which will be the world's largest mass timber project. This development aims to cover 250,000 square meters, including 7,000 office spaces and 2,000 homes, showcasing the potential of wood in urban construction and sustainable development.

The distribution of wood production and consumption varies significantly across different countries. This reflects diverse economic development levels and industrial demands.

GreenMatch

Is building with wood toxic?

Building with wood is not inherently toxic; however, specific considerations and precautions should be taken due to the potential risks associated with some types of wood and wood treatments. The toxicity of wood can vary depending on the species, the treatment it has undergone, and the exposure conditions.

For example, dust from wood processing can be hazardous if inhaled, leading to respiratory issues or exacerbating allergies. 

Certain woods, including Western Red Cedar, Sequoia, Obeche, Cocobolo, and Mansonia, are known to be more problematic in this regard. For instance, copper, a component of some wood treatments, can leach out and is concerned for environmental contamination and human health. 

These can cause allergic respiratory effects, mucosal and nonallergic respiratory effects, and, in some cases, dermatitis. 

For those concerned about toxicity, alternatives to treated wood include recycled plastic lumber, stones, concrete blocks, or naturally decay-resistant woods like black locust or red cedar

Wood toxicity 

Wood typeToxicity concernsEnvironmental benefitsPrecautions
ACQ-treatedLow toxicity; copper leachingExtends wood lifeUse protective gear, avoid burning
CCA-treatedArsenic leaching; discontinued in residential useExtended wood lifeDiscontinued due to toxicity
Natural woods (e.g., Black Walnut, Cedar)Allergic reactions; respiratory issuesCarbon sequestrationHandle with care; use dust control
Untreated woodFire risk, pests and fungiRenewable; lower embodied energyRegular maintenance; pest control

Is wood biodegradable?

Wood is indeed biodegradable. It comprises organic materials such as cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, which microorganisms, fungi, and bacteria can break down over time. Wood decomposition is a natural process that occurs as part of the carbon cycle, releasing carbon back into the environment as wood decays.

Unlike plastics, which can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, wood breaks down naturally, returning nutrients to the soil. This process, however, depends on conditions such as exposure to moisture and microorganisms. 

The potential of biodegradable wood for sustainable manufacturing is significant. Biodegradable wood products are made from renewable resources and are designed to break down after their useful life, minimising environmental impact. These durable, versatile products require less maintenance, making them a sustainable alternative to traditional wood products.

FeatureWoodSteelConcretePlastic
RenewableYesNoNoNo
Carbon StorageHighNoneNoneNone
Energy for ProductionLowHighMediumHigh
BiodegradableYesNoNoNo
RecyclableYesYesYesYes

Is building with wood sustainable?

Wood is considered a "green" product due to its renewable and sustainable nature. It can be locally grown and has less energy, water, and carbon footprint. 

However, certain types of wood are more sustainable than others. Sustainable woods like Douglas fir, slash pine, Sitka spruce, and others are preferred because they grow quickly and sequester carbon effectively.

Sustainable forest management ensures these woods are harvested responsibly, allowing for regrowth and continued carbon absorption. 

Wood production emits less carbon dioxide compared to other building materials. For instance, producing 1,000 kg of wood results in less than 100 kg of CO2 emissions, brick production emits over 300 kilograms, and steel production exceeds 2,000 kilograms of CO2.

In addition, certifications like the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) help consumers identify wood sourced from responsibly managed forests. 

The timber industry is moving towards more sustainable practices, with regions like the European Union planting more trees than they harvest. For instance, mass timber products like Mass Ply are being developed to use wood more efficiently and with less waste. 

Can wood be recycled?

The short answer is yes. Wood and wooden buildings can be recycled, offering a pathway to reduce environmental impact and conserve natural resources. 

The process involves reclaiming wood from construction and demolition sites and repurposing it for new construction, furniture, or energy production. This approach conserves forests by reducing the demand for new timber and minimises waste in landfills, thereby mitigating environmental degradation. 

Moreover, recycling wood minimises landfill waste, reducing methane emissions—a potent greenhouse gas. It also reduces air and water pollution associated with wood waste disposal and lowers the carbon footprint of wood products by utilising less energy-intensive processes.

The timber recycling process involves several steps, including collection, sorting based on quality, and processing to transform waste into a valuable resource. This process aligns with the principles of the circular economy, where waste materials are seen as resources, contributing to a more sustainable construction industry.

For instance, countries like France have mandated the use of wood in public buildings, and companies like Google are investing in timber neighbourhoods, showcasing the growing recognition of wood's environmental and aesthetic benefits.

The wood recycling market is on an upward trajectory and is expected to reach a multimillion-pounds valuation by 2030. This growth is driven by increasing consumer demand for sustainable products and the industry's focus on eco-friendly practices. 

Global wood recycling overview

ParameterValue
Global carbon emissions from construction materials11%
Carbon sequestered by wood buildings annually (predicted)700 million tons
Percentage of construction and demolition waste from wood20-30%
Recycling rate of wood pallets17.1%
Amount of wood in municipal solid waste 18.1 million tons
Percentage of municipal solid waste from wood 6.2%
Landfilled (million tons)12.2 million
Combusted with Energy Recovery (million tons)2.8 million
Note: This data is at the time of publication. 

What are alternatives to building with wood?

While wood has been a traditional favourite due to its natural aesthetic and ease of use, concerns over deforestation, durability, and long-term costs have led to exploring other materials. 

Here, we delve into four modern alternatives that offer compelling benefits over traditional wood.

Alternatives to wood in construction

  1. Steel
  • Strength and durability: Steel is known for its robustness, strength, and resistance to fire and pests.
  • Sustainability: As a recyclable material, steel supports sustainable construction practices.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Despite a higher upfront cost, steel's low maintenance and longevity can result in long-term savings.
  1. Bamboo
  • Rapid growth: Bamboo's fast growth rate makes it a renewable resource.
  • Strength: It has a high strength-to-weight ratio, making it suitable for earthquake-prone areas.
  • Eco-Friendly: Bamboo is an environmentally friendly alternative, reducing the carbon footprint of construction projects.
  1. Recycled plastic
  • Durability: Plastic-based materials are resistant to moisture, pests, and decay.
  • Sustainability: Utilizing recycled plastic promotes waste reduction and sustainability.
  • Maintenance: These materials require minimal maintenance, contributing to their cost-effectiveness.
  1. Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs)
  • Insulation: ICFs offer superior insulation, leading to significant energy savings.
  • Durability: They are fire-resistant and impervious to pests.
  • Sustainability: ICFs use materials that are often locally sourced and partially recycled.

Is wood better than its alternatives?

Whether wood is better than its alternatives depends on the specific requirements of a construction project. It is also relatively easy to work with and can be cost-effective in regions where it is abundant.

However, many of the alternatives listed offer benefits that wood does not. For example, steel, concrete, and plastic lumber are more durable and require less maintenance. They are also resistant to fire, pests, and decay, which can be significant issues with wood. Materials like bamboo and hemp are more sustainable as they overgrow and can be harvested without the same environmental impact as cutting down forests.

Additionally, materials like insulated concrete forms (ICFs) provide superior insulation, which can lead to significant energy savings for heating and cooling. 

The choice between wood and its alternatives should be based on a thorough evaluation, including budget, environmental impact, and desired lifespan of the structure.

Construction Material Comparison

MaterialInitial CostMaintenance CostDurabilitySustainability
WoodLowHighModerateModerate
SteelHighLowHighHigh
BambooModerateModerateHighHigh
Recycled PlasticHighLowHighHigh
Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs)HighLowHighHigh
This table concisely compares wood and its alternatives, highlighting each material's long-term benefits and sustainability.

Environmental impact compared to everyday things

Recent studies have shown that using wood for construction generally results in lower energy use and CO2 emissions than using concrete or steel. Wood is a carbon-positive material, meaning it stores carbon, reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

In contrast, the production and disposal of plastics contribute to air and water pollution, with a carbon footprint of around 6kg CO2 per kg of plastic. 

Lithium mining, essential for renewable energy technologies, has a significant environmental impact, though less than fossil fuels. Every tonne of mined lithium equates to 15 tonnes of CO2 emissions

To illustrate the environmental impact of building with wood versus other common materials and activities, the following table presents a comparison of CO2 emissions:

Material/ActivityCO2 emissions (per kg or as specified)
Wood (construction)0.75 to 1 tonne CO2 saved per cubic meter used(< 100 kg CO2 per 1,000 kg)
Concrete (construction)Higher than wood (> 300 kg CO2 per 1,000 kg)
Steel (construction)Higher than wood (> 2,000 kg CO2 per 1,000 kg)
Plastic (general use)6kg CO2 per kg plastic
Lithium Mining15 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of lithium
Driving a Car (per year)Approx. 2,000 kg CO2
Using a Wood-Burning Stove (efficiently)Varies, but can be sustainable if sourced responsibly

Globally, the use of wood for fuel and construction varies greatly. While in some regions, wood is harvested sustainably, in others, unsustainable practices contribute to deforestation and climate change.

It's crucial to source wood from certified sustainable forests to ensure its use contributes positively to the environment.

However, the key to maximising wood's environmental benefits lies in sustainable forestry practices that ensure the renewal of resources and minimise carbon emissions. By choosing wood from certified sources, we can positively impact the planet while enjoying the natural beauty and warmth that wood provides in our homes and buildings.

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