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The Bottom Line: Wood’s Green Edge

Canadian wood products manufacturers would do well to hitch their wagons to the green building movement, since climate change is increasingly becoming an important market driver in global construction. There is also strong evidence that wood has a substantial edge over competing building materials on this front.


November 24, 2011
By Scott Jamieson

“Wood has a powerful story to tell to counter the misconception that forest products companies use outdated technology, and that wood delivers poor environmental performance,” says Forintek researcher Jennifer O’Connor. “In fact, the technology of wood production, the types of wood products now common in construction, and advances in wood-framing techniques have all kept pace with or exceeded the sustainability developments of other industries.”

For example, according to the Forest Products Association of Canada, no other sector has made more improvement in greenhouse gas emissions than forest products, and there is quality scientific evidence to back that up.

A recent study released by Forintek’s Markets & Economics Group highlights advances in product recovery, energy self-sufficiency, and resource usage made by the wood products industry over the past 30 years. The study also demonstrates how those advances have delivered significant environmental dividends, by applying them to total housing starts today versus 30 years ago.

CORRIM (Committee on Renewable Resources for Industrial Materials) was set up by the US National Academy of Sciences in 1974 as a national effort to examine the possibility of using renewable resources to help reduce dependence on foreign energy – the oil crisis of that time was a primary motivator.  To quantify technology improvements, we accessed 1970 and 2000 production data that had been gathered by CORRIM.  They gathered production information for 1970, including wood products such as lumber, softwood plywood, and oriented strand board (OSB), and identified areas of possible improvement. Luckily for us, another study was done 30 years later under the same CORRIM name, but with 15 research institutes involved, essentially updating and expanding the original work.

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“This provided an unusual oppor-tunity to look at how much the sector has improved over that time period,” says O’Connor. “While changes in method between the two phases complicated the comparison, we were still able to reliably examine environmental improvements for lumber, softwood plywood and OSB.”

Forintek examined advances in primary production as it relates to wood usage, forest-to-mill gate energy
use, and thermal process energy self-sufficiency.

“Results showed a marked improvement in wood usage by the softwood industry, while plywood recovery improved slightly despite declining log size and resource quality,” says O’Connor.

Between 1970 and 2000, lumber recovery improved 22%, while plywood improved 7%. Adhesive usage dropped 17% by weight for OSB and 15% for plywood. Energy used to harvest, trans­port and manufacture the products decreased by 5% for lumber and 17% for plywood.

Greenhouse gas emissions dramatically decreased due to a shift from fossil fuels to biomass as production energy. The portion of manufacturing energy derived from residual wood is estimated at 76% for lumber, 90% for plywood and 81% for OSB. This shift to biomass represents a reduction of 148 kg of carbon dioxide per 1,000 bdft of lumber, and 190 kg of carbon dioxide per 1,000 ft2 of panels.

Forintek projected the environmental improvements made by industry from 1970 to 2,000 over the entire 1.28 million single-family homes constructed in the US in 2000. Manufacturing the wood products for those homes in 2000 compared to wood products from 1970 consumed 10 million fewer barrels of oil and emitted 4.4 million tonnes less carbon dioxide.

“This is the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road,” says O’Connor. “Better wood utilization means 15,000 fewer hectares of forest were harvested for those houses in 2000 compared to 1970.”

She adds that presenting the information this way will help in the overall effort to encourage substitution of wood for non-renewable building products, particularly as a way to moderate greenhouse gas emissions.

Because CORRIM data are for the US only, the question is whether the Canadian forest products sector has advanced to the same degree. “In our judgment, the Canadian industry has advanced at least as far as the US industry, if not more so,” says O’Connor. “Therefore, these figures likely apply equally to Canada.”

That view is supported by another study prepared by the Canadian Industry Program for Energy Conservation (CIPEC). It specifically examines the Canadian forest products industry and delivers useful estimates on wood production environmental improvements since 1990.