The Impact of Wood Use on North American Forests

Can specifying wood for buildings contribute to forest sustainability?
[ Page 6 of 7 ]          
Sponsored by Think Wood
Roxane Ward and Dave Patterson, RPF

According to the UNFAO, “Several aspects of the forest industry’s activities are not adequately captured by looking at only the emissions and sequestration accomplished in the value chain. For example, the use of wood-based building materials avoids emissions of 483 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, via substitution effects. In addition, by displacing fossil fuels, the burning of used products at the end of the life cycle avoids the emission of more than 25 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, which could be increased to 135 million tonnes per year by diverting material from landfills.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that forest biomass-derived energy could reduce global emissions by between 400 million and 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, a goal that the forest products industry can help society to reach through its forest biotechnology research and forest biomass infrastructure. The market for wood encourages landowners to keep land under forest, helping to avoid large-scale losses of carbon to the atmosphere via land use change.

“IPCC has stated that ‘In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.’ The analysis contained in the present report gives strong support to IPCC’s assertion that sustainable management of production forests represents an important mitigation option over the long term.”21

True or false: The forest industry has seen its last days as a major employer.

False. The forest industry is responsible for more than 1.4 million direct and indirect jobs in the U.S. and Canada. As with many resource industries, employment in both countries decreased in recent years for a variety of factors that include the recession and U.S. housing market crash. However, the industry is in many ways engineering its renewal.

Innovation in the forest – Recognizing that healthy, sustainable forests are the first prerequisite, forest companies continue to invest in advanced management technologies. For example, the latest inventory systems use light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to better predict fiber supply attributes, identify key habitat features and sensitive areas, and build more efficient and environmentally sound road systems.

Resource efficiency – According to a recent report on wood utilization,22 “The term ‘waste’ is largely obsolete in the context of today’s North American forest products industry. Logs brought to U.S. and Canadian sawmills and other wood product manufacturing centers are converted almost totally to useful products.”

Expanded opportunities for wood use – The development of innovative new buildings systems (e.g., mass timber) is allowing wood to be used as a structural material in a wider range of building types, increasing the low-carbon options available to building designers.

New product categories – Recognizing that forest-based materials generally have advantages over materials that are non-renewable and/or require large amounts of fossil fuel energy to manufacture, the industry is increasing its R&D efforts in developing new products such as green energy, bio-plastics and bio-pharmaceuticals.

As these examples demonstrate, continual improvement is fundamental, not only to forest sustainability, but to the industry’s own competitive future and its ability to provide jobs and contribute to forest-dependent communities.

True or false: If we use more wood, we’ll have less forest.

False. According to the USDA Forest Service, more than 44 million acres of private forestland could be converted to housing development in the next three decades.23 In the U.S., where 56 percent of forests are privately owned, strong markets for wood products help to ensure that landowners derive value from their investment. This provides an incentive not only to keep lands forested, but to manage them sustainably for long-term health.

In Canada, where most forests are publicly owned, sustainable harvest levels are based on the biological and ecological capacity of the land. However, strong markets contribute to resource efficiency by ensuring that forest fiber is utilized for the highest value products.


[ Page 6 of 7 ]          
Originally published in Architectural Record