Timber crucial to carbon reduction, says Environmental Audit Committee

26 May 2022

Using timber has been recognised as a crucial route to decarbonising the built environment in a landmark report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The EAC has called on the government to complete a policy roadmap to scale up the use of timber in construction by the end of 2022 – at the latest – warning the UK is already falling behind its EU counterparts when it comes to reducing carbon emissions from the built environment.

Evidence from experts heard during the 14-month long inquiry showed that using timber in place of concrete, masonry, and steel is one of the most successful strategies to reducing embodied carbon in the built environment. Researchers repeatedly highlighted the carbon saving potential of timber.

The EAC also called on the Government to implement mandatory Whole Life Carbon Assessments to help create a push toward low-carbon materials and improve the sustainability of the built environment.

Independent evidence supplied to the committee from fire experts, architects, and engineering associations also showed the post-Grenfell prohibition on the use of combustible materials in external walls has had a disproportionate impact on the use, innovation, and testing of structural timber.

Confederation of Timber Industries (CTI) chair Alex Goodfellow reacted by saying timber could allow the UK to build more homes and rapidly decarbonise the built environment.

“By using more wood we can achieve quicker, higher quality, and safer construction, as timber lends itself to modern methods of construction by being manufactured offsite with factory precision, and extend the use of existing building, with light-weight timber structures able to lend additional stories,” he said.

Timber Development UK chief executive David Hopkins said one of the biggest roadblocks to addressing climate change is a mindset which perceives the shift to a net-zero economy as “down the road, in the future”. 

“We already have a solution,” he said. “Wood is the only sustainable structural material which can enable substantial decarbonisation of the built environment based on existing business models and proven technology. It can provide vast carbon sinks in our rural areas and carbon stores in our cities.”

Mr Hopkins said the EAC’s report reflected widespread industry agreement that using more timber in place of carbon-intensive materials was the best route to reducing carbon emissions from the built environment.

Structural Timber Association chief executive Andrew Carpenter said timber frame systems were already the default choice for construction across the world.

“What we need now is greater consistency from the UK Government to give confidence to businesses to expand and take on investment,” he said.

“There are a range of policies which the UK Government can employ, many of which were outlined in this report. You only need to look across the Channel to the likes of France, which has mandated that all new public buildings must contain 50% natural materials.”

Timber frame construction can help cut carbon emissions in the built environment