23 November 2023, Sydney – Timber adoption as a pathway to decarbonising construction has captured the imagination of the Australian construction industry. In 2019, Tasmanian Timber released a report on the benefits of using timber in new buildings, arguing that the use of timber in the design, construction and operations of houses is the best avenue for the Tasmanian government and community to reduce their carbon footprint and the environmental impacts of buildings.

In 2021, the chief executive officer of the Australian Forest Products Association released a statement saying that “federal and state governments should recognise the climate mitigation benefits of Aussie timber and provide policies that incentivise greener buildings that maximise timber use”.

Last year, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation also launched its 300-million-dollar Timber Building Program, an initiative to finance mass timber projects. Just last month, the Green Building Council of Australia reported a surge in timber buildings being registered for their GBCA star rating system for sustainable houses.

The supply of timber products is also growing in Australia, with operational expansions from companies like Timberlink and Hyne Timber.

Many organisations, including the Materials Embodied Carbon Leaders’ Alliance support the uptake of more engineered wood products as the market and industry expands.

But, despite the growing interest in timber and the recognition that it is a low carbon alternative building material, there are still several barriers to its uptake in the Australian market. On Wednesday, MECLA hosted a Spotlight on Timber Myth Busting. Industry professionals across the supply chain confronted some of the prevailing myths around timber use.

The conversation addressed a range of myths. Karl-Heinz Weiss, director at Weiss Insights, explored the challenges around insuring mid-rise timber buildings because of misperceptions of fire risk among insurers. As Karl-Heinz explained, Australia is still getting its Learner’s Plates for understanding mass timber development. Building industry competency and knowledge is a continuous journey. A good resource mentioned was the Mass Timber Insurance Playbook.

Steve Mitchell, principal consultant at Thinkstep ANZ, also explored new research on what happens to the carbon stored in timber products at the end of life. The research indicates that wood waste lasts long in landfills, and very little of the biogenic carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Furthermore, from a recovery point of view, waste wood and end of life wood is now being seen as a resource.

Sustainable forestry was also an important part of the conversation, and Matt de Jongh, sustainability manager at Responsible Wood, the certifier of the PEFC (Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification), discussed these practices. He covered why certification systems, both PEFC and FSC (Forestry Stewardship Certification), are both recognised and accepted in Australia.

Auditors check the sustainable forest management codes of practice through the certification schemes. However, there is still room for improvement in our forest management. Despite these audits, multiple controversies have happened over recent years around threatened species habitat and native forest degradation.

Furthermore, we do not want illegal tropical imported forest timber used in Australia, which accounts for roughly 14 per cent of all wood products. So, learning more deeply about improving the already well-regulated Australian forestry industry is crucial. To this end, Matt de Jongh encouraged people to attend a Responsible Wood field trip to observe how forestry management works.

Tim Woods, managing director at IndustryEDGE, addressed sourcing concerns, discussing the distinction between EWPs and hardwood products. Softwood plantation harvesting is cutting down pine plantation forests, usually harvesting for housing frames. Softwood harvesting and offcuts provide the feedstock for many EWPs, which are woods combined with glue and/or other additives to create a processed product. A crucial point made by Tim was that the traditional ways of building houses are broken, taking at least 10 months to complete, and not fit for current needs. We need to build more efficiently, which involves forms of pre-fabrication and EWP.

The introduction of frames and trusses into the local economy needs to be normalised. Currently, Australia imports 60 per cent of EWP. With increased domestic production, we can expect to have sufficient EWPs in the future. Engineered timber flooring with bamboo finishes is also a growth area for the market.

Growing demand for timber products cannot come at the expense of Australia’s rich ecology. Native forest and old growth logging usually occur to source hardwood products, like decking, flooring, and panels, and we know native forest logging still happens in many Australian states and territories, although Victoria and Western Australia have taken steps to ban it entirely by the end of 2024. In Tasmania, 25 per cent of wood product comes from native forest compared to 9 per cent for the rest of Australia.

Clear felling of native forests is not good management and results in substantial carbon loss and biodiversity losses. Better and active management of forests could retain ecosystem integrity, which is particularly necessary in an era of major climate change.

MECLA is working actively to support the growth of engineered wood products and create new pathways for the timber industry and the built environment. If managed well, the growing demand for timber products is an opportunity to save carbon and improve our forestry management practices. To this end, engagement with all sides of the industry ecosystem and a systems view is vital.

This article first appeared in the Fifth Estate.
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