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Plant more trees for a greener construction future

Wood for Good

4 min read Partner content

TIMBER has a central role to play in reducing carbon emissions in construction - and the UK will not meet its climate change targets without major changes in the building industry, an influential House of Commons committee has warned.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report also recommended that the Government develop a coherent policy to address the need to plant more productive forests in the UK to meet the demand for domestic timber in construction.

The report comes just two months after the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee accused the UK Government of a “lack of focus” on tree planting and called on ministers to seize the opportunity to expand domestic timber production, and increase the amount of home-grown wood used in UK building and construction. It noted that 80% of the wood products used in the UK are imported.

“These two reports lay out the urgent need - and the scale of the opportunity - to use more sustainable timber in construction, and to plant more trees across the UK to secure that long-term supply of sustainable timber,” said Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor.

“Unfortunately, the UK Government is not implementing the joined-up policies needed to make this happen and the result will be a failure to meet its manifesto commitment on tree planting - and a failure to deliver net zero by 2050.”

The EAC report, published today (Thursday May 26th) says: “EAC recognises the potential of timber as a low-carbon construction material, though the Committee identified significant hurdles to its wider use, such as appropriate sourcing, enhanced tree planting and a current skills gap in timber use in construction.”

The report goes on to say: “Government must develop a coherent policy, joined up across Departments, to address the need for increased tree planting to address biodiversity and climate change concerns and the need for sustainable commercial plantations using appropriate tree species to meet the demand for domestic timber in construction.”

To further emphasise this point, the report says that the Government “must comprehensively address the afforestation commitments made in the England Tree Action Plan and the need for timber construction products”.

Mr Goodall added: “Confor strongly welcomes the EAC report calling for the reduction of carbon in construction. Timber is an essential part of achieving this: using more timber in construction and investing in research and innovation in structural timber products, and construction methods, will unlock many opportunities - not only to decarbonise the built environment, but also to build healthy, energy-efficient, affordable homes that people want.

“The challenges to adopting more timber in construction, however, are significant. The availability of home-grown timber is forecast to decline from the 2030s and previous reports have warned that we are not planting enough trees to secure the necessary future supply -  despite the ambitious target of 30,000 hectares a year by 2024 set by the UK Government.

“The publication of this report has to be seen as further overwhelming evidence of the urgent need for Government ministers to find a way to deliver the new woodland we need to ramp up the use of sustainably produced domestic timber in construction.”

Mr Goodall said Confor would continue to work closely with the Government to deliver an ambitious, cross-department roadmap on timber in construction, to plant the right trees to supply the construction sector with the sustainable materials needed - and to address the shortage of green skills needed to increase afforestation targets and stimulate innovation in construction.

The EAC report also calls for a mandatory requirement for whole-life carbon assessments for buildings - to be fully incorporated in building regulations and the planning system. These assessments would calculate emissions from the construction, maintenance and demolition of a building, and from the energy used in day-to-day operations. The UK is lagging behind countries such as The Netherlands and France which have established mandatory whole-life carbon assessments for their built environment.

Once these assessments are in place, the committee says, the Government should develop carbon targets for buildings to align with the UK’s net zero goals. A clear timeframe for introducing whole-life carbon assessments should be set by the Government by the end of 2022 at the latest, and should be introduced not later than December 2023.

The committee calls for a greater focus on retrofitting buildings, but adds: “Where retrofit is not possible, EAC recommends efficient and more effective use of low-carbon building materials.”

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