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Rebuilding the market for sustainable timber: Some thoughts from Scotland

One of Russia’s lesser-known claims to fame is that its native Siberian larch produces the best softwood structural timber used in the construction industry. Timber from the slow-growing Siberian larch, also known as ‘the eternity tree’ is beautiful to look at and incredibly durable, with some timber-framed homes in Russia thought to be over 800 years old. Here in Scotland, the native Scots pine has historically fulfilled a similar role but, like Russia, its domestic market for structural softwood timber remains poorly exploited, yet the benefits of harnessing this sustainable resource go way beyond reducing the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the industry.

However, whilst in Russia and Scotland living in a timber frame home means living in a house, Sweden has pioneered the construction of whole blocks of flats, affectionately dubbed ‘plyscrapers’, with country’s the tallest, an 8.5 storey block in Stockholm designed by C.F. Møller Architects, completed earlier this year. Building high-rise blocks with timber poses a number of challenges, not least ensuring structural stability and meeting fire safety standards, but this can, and have been, overcome, critically by using high-strength cross-laminated timber (CLT) products manufactured using fire-resistant glue. Yet, given that CLT panels were first developed in Europe in the 1970s, it seems strange that our two countries, with their long architectural histories of using timber and building high rise tenements and flats, have been so slow in putting the two together.

Russia is home to more than one fifth of the world’s forested areas, mostly composed of a small number of evergreen and softwood species, and almost all of which are prime or naturally-regenerated ecosystems. In contrast, Scotland has suffered from significant deforestation to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution and to clear land for grouse moors. However, since falling to under 5% around the nineteenth century, Scotland’s forests and woodlands have recovered, largely through replanting and changes in land management, to cover 19% of the country, with a target of reaching 21% by 2032. In 2015 softwoods accounted for 98.7% of Scottish timber production, but most of this was the non-native Sitka spruce, which is favoured for being fast-growing and producing long, straight trunks suitable for a wide variety of uses. 

In the case of Russia, its vast prime forests naturally merit protection as part of global efforts to preserve native ecosystems, but the sheer size of the resource means that even the 2.4% of forestry accounted for by purpose-planted trees has considerable potential for producing sustainable supplies of structural timber. And here in Scotland, and elsewhere in Northern Europe, efforts to rebuild the market for softwood timber and other energy efficient and sustainable building materials have focussed on their potential environmental, economic and social benefits and co-benefits. These include creating new skilled jobs in deprived rural areas, providing new opportunities for recreation and tourism, and enhancing biodiversity.

However, the latter benefit is a somewhat thorny issue for the timber industry. Globally, the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) labels serve as a form of minimum sustainability standard for wood products, but the FSC is subject to regular and substantial criticism, including for allowing its label to be applies to timber from primary forests in Sweden. This lack of due diligence on the part of the FSC has led to some attempts to introduce more stringent labels, such as the PEFC and Scottish Working Woods labels, but these have yet to gain the same traction with consumers. They also raise the question of whether a maintaining single global standard is currently practicable, given the diversity of forest ecosystems and wood products, and the sheer costs and logistics of inspecting and policing all managed forestry for a single organisation.

In 2011 my team and I at Glasgow Caledonian University were part of a consortium funded by the European Regional Development Fund’s Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme to deliver the NEES Project to promote natural, energy efficient and sustainable building materials sourced from Northern Europe. One of my roles in the project was to develop and implement the ‘NEES Process’ for identifying examples of best practice to be promoted as part of the project, which included a Scottish woodland and sawmill, cross-laminated timber products from Sweden, and cellulose insulation from Ireland.

The process also enabled the identification of some common barriers to mainstreaming sustainable building materials. Simple lack of awareness of their benefits (and co-benefits) amongst the construction industry, housing developers, and the public was a commonly-cited barrier, along with a lack of professional training opportunities for architects and house builders. However, where clients were aware, or made aware, they were reported to have found them preferable for reasons such as being safer for installers and more aesthetically pleasing for occupants. A potentially more significant barrier, and a key finding of the project, was the costs of achieving relevant certification for products manufactured by the smaller companies, and the potential consequences of making claims without that certification. Larger competitors using conventional products and materials were commonly viewed as being litigious towards smaller companies who promote the sustainability of their products and services, and even the risk of legal action was seen as sufficient to deter them from making such claims. This was further compounded by the financial and staff resource costs of achieving relevant certification, with practical evidence of this gathered through helping one of the best practices achieve certification under the UK’s Carbon Trust label.

The barriers we encountered are particularly pertinent for the timber industry, and the impacts of unsustainable forestry practices are significant at all scales, from destroying local environments to their contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions, but we also found no shortage of demand for sustainably-sourced timber. With our different experiences but common building traditions, perhaps this is one area where Scotland and Russia can learn from each other, and other northern countries, to protect our woodlands and develop truly sustainable management practices that will yield timber for homes that will delight future generations for hundreds of years to come.

By Dr Keith Baker, researcher in sustainable urban environments at Glasgow Caledonian University

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