It’s not as visibly bad as the belching smokestacks of the coal industry or the gas-chugging backups on suburban highways, but the building industry is a major contributor to climate change. From their materials to their construction to their energy needs over time, buildings generate nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of that, around a quarter is embodied carbon, or the sum of emissions that resulted in the production, transportation, and use of building materials. What a building is made of can have a huge climate impact.
One simple solution is to switch to wood, which sequesters carbon, as a primary building material. According to a new meta-study, switching to wood on a wide scale could bring emissions down by using a material that naturally absorbs and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. Over just the next 20 years, 420 million tons of carbon dioxide could be sequestered within wooden buildings in Europe—the equivalent of a year’s worth of emissions from 71 million homes or 108 coal plants.
Spread out to a global scale, there is massive potential for wooden buildings to become long-lasting carbon sinks, according to Ali Amiri of Aalto University in Finland, one of the authors of the study. As forests are planted to meet a potentially growing demand for wood, Amiri says, “we can store and store and store.”
Wood represents a much greener alternative to the materials often used in construction: concrete and steel. The production of these two materials adds up to roughly 15% of global CO2 emissions. Shifting more construction to wood would help bring those numbers down.