Feature Article

Wood: Is It Still Good? Part One: Embodied Carbon

Wood products are widely regarded as carbon neutral—or even better. With new research challenging that idea, a more cautious approach is emerging. Because the climate stakes are too high for us to get this wrong.

aerial view of a forest, a river, and a tidal estuary showing many colors of green and yellow-green indicating different ecosystems thriving across a single landscape.

Holmes Stream Community Forest is managed specifically as bird habitat under a songbird management plan, according to the New England Forestry Foundation. The organization’s Exemplary Forestry standards seek to implement “climate-smart” management practices—a new evolution in storytelling about the value of forests and timber.

Photo: Michael Perlman/New England Forestry Foundation
Editor’s note: Stephanie Carlisle, senior researcher at the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum, generously provided a technical review.

This is Part One of a two-part series on wood products. It delves into the climate impacts—positive, negative, and otherwise—of managed forests. Part Two considers more climate implications along with ecological and socioeconomic impacts, illuminating surprisingly diverse forestry practices throughout the U.S. and Canada. Part Two also provides pragmatic guidance on vetting and procuring better products.

The report landed gently at first, at the height of summer, bearing a semi-cryptic, semi-technocratic name. So it was a couple of weeks before its findings exploded.

The blast, when it came, shattered a tenacious truism about one of the most essential and enduring building materials on Earth. “Wood use is not ‘carbon neutral,’” asserted the authors of The Global Land Squeeze: Managing the Growing Competition for Land.

The shock wave from this statement is still unsettling the green building community. Released in July 2023 by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the land-squeeze report maintains that wood use is not carbon neutral “even if forests are managed sustainably” and adds, “In most scenarios, harvesting additional wood, even for construction, will likely increase atmospheric carbon for decades.”

Despite a thorough and passionate rebuttal from fellow scientist Brent Sohngen, a professor of agricultural, environmental, and development economics at Ohio State University, the report has felled longstanding assumptions and net-zero claims, creating a sort of clearing where many environmentalists’ latent unease has taken root and has quickly grown larger and stronger. Suddenly, the inherent-carbon-neutrality maxim—remarkably persistent despite being counterintuitive—was being openly questioned. And that questioning has altered the green building world’s assumptions and conversations about the sustainability of wood products, and of mass timber structural systems in particular, perhaps irrevocably.

cover of a report titled “THE GLOBAL LAND SQUEEZE: MANAGING THE GROWING COMPETITION FOR LAND.” A photo on the left under the words shows a green forest canopy. A photo on the right shows a clearcut.

Wood is not carbon neutral, the authors of this WRI publication asserted in July 2023. Its findings set off a reckoning, both in the timber industry and among building professionals.

Image: World Resources Institute
But were the authors right?

And if they were, what should we do now?

Originally published January 29, 2024 Reviewed February 26, 2024

Melton, P. (2024, February 26). Wood: Is It Still Good? Part One: Embodied Carbon. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/wood-it-still-good-part-one-embodied-carbon