Increasing the use of wood in construction can help overcome global challenges

Photo: LevasFlor

Sågverk i Mocambique, som får svenskt stöd

The world’s population is exploding, cities are growing, and the planet is severely strained. Sustainable forestry management, an efficient forestry industry and wood as a climate-smart construction material can be important components in overcoming some of the global challenges we’re facing – which is precisely where the lessons learnt in Sweden can made a difference.

According to the UN forecast from 2017, the world’s population will increase from its current level of 7.9 billion to almost 10 billion by mid-century. If the trend continues, most of these additional two billion people will be living in cities.

“As cities grow, it is important to be able to organise housing solutions so everyone can lead decent lives. Using wood as a building material is the best way forward. If we were to build everything out of steel and concrete, we would worsen the climate crisis. Urbanisation alone will intensify will the demand for wood products, which will benefit both large-scale investments and local forest owners. The expected intense demand for wood could drive the trend forward towards sustainable landscapes,” says Lars Laestadius, sustainability strategist and consultant.

He is part of the network arising from the Eco-innovation Foundation and an adjunct lecturer at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. He has worked for many years in the forestry programme at the World Resources Institute, which has monitored issues of global forest development.

Using wood in construction is both effective and good for the climate. Wood stores carbon dioxide, lends itself well to prefab constructions and is relatively lightweight. This means that each lorry can transport large volumes of building materials, which reduces transports and lowers emissions. In addition, the relatively low weight makes it possible to add on wooden structures to existing buildings. This makes it possible to densify cities without using areas that could be used instead for farming, for example. Yet although the interest in wood construction is rising sharply in the northern hemisphere, most of the population increase is taking place in the southern hemisphere and Asia. This is challenging.

“Many parts of the world have no tradition for using wood and/or lack knowledge of how to do this. Many countries also lack the forest resources required for large industries,” says Jonas Cedergren, researcher at Skogforsk.

He has previously worked on developing gentle logging methods and forestry in south-east Asia, and he has worked as an expert in forestry technology at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, an agency specialising in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. 

Overcoming the challenges of global population growth by using a fossil-free building material such as wood does not mean that the stands of large trees in regions such as Africa, Asia and tropical America should be used to build houses. Instead, Jonas Cedergren believes that product development could be a way forward, which is where the lessons learnt in Sweden could be crucial: 

“The use of cross-laminated timber, for example, eliminates the need to use very large trees. Finishing treatments such as proofing can increase the demand for tree species that lack natural resilience. In south-east Asia, this would have a profound effect on the forestry industry,” Jonas Cedergren says, continuing:

“Another positive effect of product development and innovation is that it can enhance the viability of small businesses in poor countries’ forestry sectors and enable them to survive.”

Jonas Cedergren has several specific ideas:

“When it comes to constructing buildings out of wood, the sawmilling sector is far too big in many Asian and African countries, because it is made up of small, inefficient entities that are competing for dwindling resources. Diversification and product development are needed, which is where Swedish expertise could help. In my view, natural forests must be proactively managed. An important product of natural forests is firewood, which could be harvested in clearings and by thinning, becoming part of the forest management process. This is a topic where bilateral efforts (support that goes directly from Sweden to a country or region) could be expedient.”

If the solution to the climate crisis and rising population is to increase the use of wood in the construction industry, it is crucial at the same time to ensure that forestry is made sustainable and that biodiversity is protected.

“We see major challenges in managing the vast, dry forests of Africa, where much of the firewood is harvested. The supplies of wood to refugee camps are also a major challenge. But the alternative is probably not to leave the forest completely untouched,” says Jonas Cedergren.

“It’s important to understand and protect the unique ecosystems that exist all over the world. Genetic diversity is crucial, not least when it comes to the planting of new forests. Even if you choose to focus on a specific type of tree, genetic variation within the species is important. For example, you should use of seeds from a variety of viable trees instead of only one. We’re good at genetics and plant breeding in Sweden, which is why we have a lot to contribute,” says Lars Laestadius, and continues:

“We can’t create a forest reserve. We need to produce what people need as cheaply as possible so more people can afford to lead decent lives. At the same time, we mustn’t overburden our forests. We need to strike a balance. No matter what, our efforts must seek to meet local needs, where factors such as population pressure and land conditions are actually decisive for local decision-making and priorities.”

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