Other LCA research

Scientific endorsement of the specific environmental attributes of American hardwoods relative to competing materials must await publication of the AHEC-commissioned LCA study. However, the results of earlier comparative LCA studies suggest that wood products generally perform extremely well when environmental credentials are considered on a full cradle-to-grave basis.

For example, in a study entitled “Environmental and energy balances of wood products and substitutes” commissioned by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2002,  the University of Hamburg undertook a comprehensive review of LCA work during the previous decade. The authors concluded “The results of the comparative LCA studies clearly indicate that wood products and products systems show advantages in most environmental impact categories. The subjective impression that wood products are better than competitive products with respect to environmental aspects can be scientifically proved.”[1] 

Also in 2002, the UK Building Research Establishment (BRE) published results from the study, ‘Environmental Profiles of Building Materials, Components and Buildings’. BRE scored timber highly in the 13 environmental impacts studied - from climate change, pollution to air and water, waste disposal, and transport pollution and congestion. Timber was recognised as the only building material to have a positive impact on the environment due to trees’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide. BRE concluded that “timber and wood based materials have excellent environmental performance…often better than that of alternative materials. Timber and wood-based materials can make an important contribution to achieving more sustainable production.”[2] 

In their 2006 study of the flooring industry in Germany, Nebel, Zimmer, and Wegener examined the whole life cycle of four wood floor coverings, including solid parquet, multilayer parquet, solid floor boards, and wood blocks [3]. The authors point out that, compared with all German volume domestic products, wood flooring contributed significantly less (factors of 5 to 50 lower) to impact categories including climate change, acidification, eutrophication, photo-oxidant formation, and ozone depletion. Storage of carbon inherent in wood flooring coupled with energy production alternatives to fossil fuels realized by residual wood and post-consumer wood streams represent significantly reduced, perhaps even negative, global warming potential for these products.

In 2004 research, the Consortium for Research on Renewable Materials (CORRIM), a U.S. non-profit corporation of 15 research universities, concluded that steel framing used 17 percent more energy than wood construction for a typical house in Minnesota, while concrete construction used 16 percent more energy than a wood construction house in Atlanta. In both situations, the consortium found that the use of steel had 26 percent more global warming potential than wood, and concrete had 31 percent more. [4]

The Athena Model, developed by the non-profit Athena Sustainable Materials Institute, compares the cradle-to-grave ecological quotient of wood, steel and concrete across the six stages of a material’s life expectancy: resource extraction, manufacturing, on-site construction, facility occupancy, and demolition and ultimate reuse or recycling. The Athena Model found wood to have the lowest environmental impact in each of these categories, and that wood exceeds the other materials in terms of environmental soundness and energy use; production of greenhouse gases; air and water pollution; production of solid waste; and overall ecological resource use.[5]

[1]. Dr Mohammad Scharai-Rad and Dr Johannes Welling, 2002, Environmental and 1energy balances of wood products and substitutes. Department of Wood Technology, University of Hamburg and the Federal Research Centre for Forestry and Forest Products, Hamburg. Results published by the FAO, Rome, 2002. A full copy of their report is available here.

[2]. Building Research Establishment, 2002, Digest 470: Life cycle impacts of timber. A review of the environmental impacts of wood products in construction. Details of BRE and their publications are available on their website.

[3]. Nebel B, Zimmer B, Wegener G (2006): Life cycle assessment of wood floor coverings – A representative study for the German flooring industry. Int J LCA 11 (3) 172–182

[4]. Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials (CORRIM), summary report from Forest Products Journal, June 2004, Vol 54, No. 6. Available here

[5]. Full details of this and other LCA studies by ATHENA, are available at the Canadian Wood Council website. Details about the ATHENA Sustainable Materials Institute are available here.


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