It may seem obvious, especially coming from people who are the caretakers of America’s private forests, but wood is good—good for the environment, as a component in new houses and as a construction element. This is often overlooked, especially when considering alternatives. In fact, wood has benefits that make it the best material compared to its alternatives, such as steel or concrete, and with good reason.
To understand why wood is good, let’s look at a little basic science, courtesy of Dovetail Partners, which publishes research on environmental issues. In a recent report, “Building with wood=Proactive climate protection,” the Dovetail lays out the facts behind trees, wood and carbon dioxide.
We know that forests and trees play a critical role in filtering and renewing the planet’s air. They absorb carbon dioxide and water, and in return release oxygen. The carbon is stored in the tree’s fibers, and is not released until the tree dies (unless it is turned into lumber or another wood product) or is burned in a fire.
But there’s a lesser known fact about trees and carbon: They use a great deal of carbon dioxide to make wood, so that products also made from wood continue to store that same carbon—for as long as those products exist. That is something that alternative building materials cannot do, and it sets trees and wood apart from other building supplies. According to Dovetail Partners, as much as one half of the weight of wood is carbon.
But not only do trees and wood products absorb and store carbon for long periods of time, they are also extremely energy efficient to produce. The lone sources required to grow trees into harvestable wood products are solar energy and water. The solar energy is taken in by the tree’s leaves—no solar panels or electrical infrastructure required—and the water typically falls naturally in private forest.
Concrete, steel and other alternative materials require far more energy, often in the form of fossil fuel-consuming sources such as coal-fired power plants. Some energy is required to manufacture building supplies such as lumber from the trees themselves. Yet, a large portion of the energy used in North American forest products manufacturing plants is taken from the trees, in the form of biomass generally in the form of bark, sawdust, and small wood scraps—the parts of the tree not used in the manufacturing process. In other words, the energy used comes not from fossil fuels, but rather from left-over waste from the trees.
The benefits of trees as a positive for the environment and as a building resource is summed up in the Dovetail Partners report:
The amount of forestland area in the U.S. has been essentially constant since 1900. This reality and a long history of positive net growth (growth in excess of mortality and removals), coupled with improvements in forest management and supported by strong markets for forest products, have resulted in U.S. forests storing more carbon than they release into the atmosphere (i.e. are net carbon sinks). In fact, scientists estimate that U.S. forests have been a net carbon sink since the early 1900s.
Here are some other “good news” statistics to put wood in the proper perspective:
- Over the past 100 years consumption of wood products has more than doubled.
- At the same time, U.S. forests occupy over 765 million acres of land or 72% of the “original” forest area.
- The total volume of wood on U.S. forestlands has increased by over 57% since 1953.
- We have set aside 34% of that forest to be reserved from harvest, 4 Over 10 million private landowners own 56% of forestland.
There are many additional benefits to wood as a key building material, including its durability and its resistance to fire and earthquakes. Our private forest landowners are the caretakers of this land, the stewards for whom sustainability and conservation are at their core, ensuring that trees and wood products are available for construction and multitude of other uses.