Planting the seeds of carbon capturing

Planting trees soaks up carbon and wood products store carbon. Picture: PAPlanting trees soaks up carbon and wood products store carbon. Picture: PA
Planting trees soaks up carbon and wood products store carbon. Picture: PA
WHEN you think of carbon capture and storage (CCS), you probably imagine a long pipe pumping carbon deep under the sea. You probably don’t think much about trees – but maybe you should.

CCS as we know it is hugely expensive and largely unproven – and there are also concerns about safety.

There are various global attempts to address the challenge of “carbon dioxide utilisation”, turning carbon dioxide from a waste product that causes global warming into something useful. The challenge is attracting the attention of scientists and investors, and has been described as an area to watch for real change in the next five years.

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So where do trees and wood come into this discussion? Well, planting trees soaks up carbon (the capture bit) and wood products store carbon – and it is much safer to embed carbon in wooden furniture or timber frames for houses than pumping it under the sea.

On the surface, this seems a much better solution. Yet as recently as early August, the UK government reaffirmed its commitment to establish a CCS industry. This means continuing to throw hundreds of millions at big companies looking to develop underground solutions, although a more cost-effective and sensible answer stares them right in the face.

That answer is sustainable forestry; harvesting trees at the peak of their growth and ability to sequester carbon, then replanting them with more trees in a continuous, renewable cycle in a commitment to long-term responsible management. Carbon is stored in the wood products created and the by-products of this process can be used to replace fossil fuels in energy production.

Planting more trees could capture and store a tonne of carbon dioxide for around £26. By contrast, the cheapest form of industrial CCS comes in at in excess of £500 per tonne.

In all other large industries, more economic activity means more negative environmental impacts. Conversely, more activity in the forestry sector creates greater environmental benefit – Scotland’s forests are managed to high standards endorsed by RSPB, WWF and many others, and forestry and wood processing provides many well-paid jobs in rural areas.

In a welcome coincidence of timing, planting more trees will also protect the long-term future of this key sector which supports 40,000 people in Scotland and adds £1.7 billion in economic value every year. As Confor identified this year, the sector faces a looming supply crisis which can only be avoided by planting more trees now.

The Scottish Government has recognised the carbon benefit of using wood products in its plans to reduce carbon emissions and we would like to see that adopted more widely. Scotland should embrace a “Wood First” policy, in public construction projects, and in new-build housing and refurbishment.

A “Wood First” approach should be a no-brainer as wood is by far the best building material for the environment. As well as storing carbon, wood requires far less energy to create products for the building industry. A tonne of brick requires more than four times the energy to produce as a tonne of sawn softwood. Concrete requires five times more energy and steel 24 times more.

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Wood’s thermal insulation properties are also five times better than concrete, ten times better than brick and 350 times better than steel.

Wood for Good, Confor’s wood promotion initiative, recognises the fact that wood is the ultimate renewable material and seeks to raise awareness with a view to using it across a range of markets. A Lifecycle Database tool has been developed to share specific information on why wood is a cheaper, cleaner, better choice.

The database shows each timber product listed has absorbed and stored more carbon emissions during growth than are emitted during harvesting, transporting, processing, manufacture and delivery to building sites. It is the only mainstream renewable, carbon negative building material and can decarbonise construction while supporting an important Scottish industry.

There are so many positives, which is why Wood for Good submitted an entry for the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s £1bn CCS programme. Tree planting and using wood from sustainable sources like Scotland would be the cheapest, most efficient and effective carbon capture and storage system available.

• David Hopkins is communications director of Wood for Good, Confor’s wood promotion initiative.