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Tomos Owens: Pining for a timber revolution

Tomos Owens (Climate Programme Intern at CEN)

Green houses are the solution to our housing crisis. Not the glass variety, but the hyper efficient, low carbon, timber framed, and quick-to-build type. New-built timber framed houses are quicker to build and more energy efficient than equivalent brick houses. At a time when house building continues to miss government targets and home ownership is receding among the younger generations, we need a construction kickstart in the UK.

Timber framed buildings of today are technologically leaps and bounds ahead of the beautiful black and white Tudor buildings that grace our historic towns as well as present-day brick and mortar. A prefabricated timber-framed house can be slotted together just like a jigsaw. This engineers a super insulated and low impact building that will save the wallets of the occupants, slashing construction times by around 30% compared with a masonry house.

Furthermore, timber framed buildings become long-term carbon sinks. The trees capture CO2 as they grow and are then manufactured into housing components, locking that carbon in for the lifetime of the building. Shifting away from carbon-heavy bricks could lower the embodied carbon in a house by around 20%.

The myriad benefits are set against a worrying trend. The price of imported timber has risen over 60% since 2020 - an upward trend that looks set to continue indefinitely. We import over 80% of our timber and as prices rocket we are in a precarious position. Despite repeatedly setting ambitious targets, the UK still isn’t planting enough trees. UK domestic timber supply is set to fall by a third between 2030 and 2050 as we pay for shortsightedness that saw tree planting, whether commercial or woodland, become a backseat issue.

Tree planting campaigns, like the Queen’s Green Canopy, are growing in popularity. These exciting projects rightly tend to focus on planting native broadleaf trees to create much needed nature recovery benefits. But while broadleaf trees take around 150 years to reach maturity and offer vital biodiversity benefits, faster growing softwoods must also be recognised for their superpowers: shorter-term carbon sequestration benefits, timber provision and support for the rural economy.

As domestic supply constricts and global timber prices continue to rise, there will likely be increasing conflict on what we choose to use timber for. Competing uses of wood include construction, domestic heating, and, perhaps most controversially, being burned to generate electricity. The Climate Change Committee created a use-hierarchy to rank the various uses of biomass, placing wood in construction at the top. To ensure that timber and other biomass materials are used most effectively on our path to net zero by 2050, the government should include the hierarchy in its upcoming Biomass Strategy, which is due to be published later this year.

There needs to be a timber revolution if we are to reach net zero by 2050 whilst also tackling our housing crisis. Nature restoration, carbon sequestration and timber production can all be achieved by planting trees and giving them time and space to grow. These benefits are often repeated and whilst the best time to plant a tree was yesterday, the second best time is today.


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