Nav: Home

Can wood construction transform cities from carbon source to carbon vault?

January 30, 2020

The steady rise of the world's urban population will drive an immense demand for new housing, commercial buildings, and other infrastructure across the planet by midcentury. This building boom will likely escalate global carbon emissions to dangerous levels and intensify climate change -- particularly if it relies on traditional materials such as concrete and steel.

But if society is able to use more wood-based products to meet this building demand, this urban growth might actually present an opportunity to mitigate climate change, according to a new paper led by researchers at Yale and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

Writing in the journal Nature Sustainability, a multidisciplinary team of researchers and architects predicts that designing mid-rise urban buildings with engineered timber -- rather than relying mainly on carbon-intensive materials -- has the potential to create a vast "bank vault" that can store within these buildings 10 to 68 million tons of carbon annually that might otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

Simultaneously, society would drastically reduce carbon emissions associated with the construction sector, said Galina Churkina, who led the collaborative research while she was as a visiting fellow at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).

"Since the beginning of the industrial revolution we have been releasing into the atmosphere all of this carbon that had been stored in forests and in the ground," said Churkina, who is a senior scientist at PIK. "We wanted to show that there can be a vision for returning much of this carbon back into the land."

Beyond that, achieving a large-scale wood-based construction sector has the potential to create a new "symbiotic relationship" between natural systems and cities, said Alan Organschi, another author, from the Yale School of Architecture and Gray Organschi Architecture in New Haven.

"The city would become a carbon sink rather than a carbon source," he said. "We would essentially be storing the carbon that would otherwise be combusted for energy or aerobically digested on the forest floor and allowing the forest to 'continue' in this restorative, carbon-absorbing system."

Other authors include Barbara Reck, a senior research scientist and industrial ecologist at F&ES, Thomas Graedel, professor emeritus of industrial ecology at F&ES, as well as researchers from Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Tsinghua University's Department of Earth Systems Science, and Gray Organschi Architecture's Timber City Research Initiative.

Although the practice of building with wood dates back to ancient times, the use of heavy, solid timber began to wane as steel and reinforced concrete technologies and techniques became cheaper and more reliable in the late 19thcentury. For larger projects, meanwhile, the use of wood became increasingly unpopular for many reasons, including the variant nature of wood products, the absorption and desorption properties that can change the shape of wood materials, and concerns about the risk of fire in wood-built buildings.

But technological advances have re-shaped the wood materials sector. While many might think of wood products as simply the pieces found in the lumber section of Home Depot, "mass timber" technologies these days refers to engineered wood products that are laminated from smaller boards and materials. These methods enable producers to break wood materials down to their smallest components and recompose them to suit a project -- removing the materials' vulnerabilities and weaknesses. (Also, extensive testing of glue-laminated beams and cross-laminated timber structures has demonstrated fire-resistance in buildings up to 18 stories in height.)

Indeed, mass timber is now used in urban building projects across the world, from Portland, Oregon to Tokyo, Japan.

"Using timber as the main building material for inner cities may seem counterintuitive, but novel technologies combined with an overwhelming climate benefit make it something every city planner should consider," said Reck.

Achieving a large-scale expansion of the mass timber sector will require changes in building codes, retraining of the construction workforce, expansion of the bio-based products sector, innovative urban planning, and a significant downscale in the production of mineral-based materials, researchers say.

Critically, it would also require advances in forest sustainable and continued re-forestation efforts to prevent over-exploitation of forest resources and ecosystems, as well as more research into the lifecycle of wood products to assure that the carbon stored in these products remains stored over the long term, Churkina says.

The authors acknowledge that growing the mass timber industry to a scale that challenges traditional building sectors will require additional research and coordination across sectors. But, they say, their findings suggest the vast potential to address a critical global challenge facing humankind in the decades ahead.

"To me it's like the first step," said Organschi. "It raises the question: why would we do this? And the answer is, well, if we do it right -- and that's a big if -- the sheer capacity of buildings to work as climate mitigation tools is amazing. It's amazing."

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Related Carbon Articles:

Can wood construction transform cities from carbon source to carbon vault?
A new study by researchers and architects at Yale and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research predicts that a transition to timber-based wood products in the construction of new housing, buildings, and infrastructure would not only offset enormous amounts of carbon emissions related to concrete and steel production -- it could turn the world's cities into a vast carbon sink.
Investigation of oceanic 'black carbon' uncovers mystery in global carbon cycle
An unexpected finding published today in Nature Communications challenges a long-held assumption about the origin of oceanic black coal, and introduces a tantalizing new mystery: If oceanic black carbon is significantly different from the black carbon found in rivers, where did it come from?
First fully rechargeable carbon dioxide battery with carbon neutrality
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago are the first to show that lithium-carbon dioxide batteries can be designed to operate in a fully rechargeable manner, and they have successfully tested a lithium-carbon dioxide battery prototype running up to 500 consecutive cycles of charge/recharge processes.
How and when was carbon distributed in the Earth?
A magma ocean existing during the core formation is thought to have been highly depleted in carbon due to its high-siderophile (iron loving) behavior.
New route to carbon-neutral fuels from carbon dioxide discovered by Stanford-DTU team
A new way to convert carbon dioxide into the building block for sustainable liquid fuels was very efficient in tests and did not have the reaction that destroys the conventional device.
How much carbon the land can stomach with more carbon dioxide in the air
Researchers from 28 institutions in nine countries succeeded in quantifying carbon dioxide fertilization for the past five decades, using simulations from 12 terrestrial ecosystem models and observations from seven field carbon dioxide enrichment experiments.
'Charismatic carbon'
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), addressing carbon emissions from our food sector is absolutely essential to combatting climate change.
Extreme wildfires threaten to turn boreal forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources
A research team investigated the impact of extreme fires on previously intact carbon stores by studying the soil and vegetation of the boreal forest and how they changed after a record-setting fire season in the Northwest Territories in 2014.
Can we still have fun if the UK goes carbon neutral?
Will Britain going carbon neutral mean no more fun? Experts from the University of Surrey have urged local policy makers to put in place infrastructure that will enable people to enjoy recreation and leisure while keeping their carbon footprint down.
Could there be life without carbon? (video)
One element is the backbone of all forms of life we've ever discovered on Earth: carbon.
More Carbon News and Carbon Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at