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Immediate Actions for Policy and Industry Leaders on Bio-based Low Carbon Construction

Policy makers and investors should prioritize systemic change via regulations, finance, new technologies, and building cultures that lead to long term net storage of carbon in urban infrastructure and forests through the following principles and considerations:

  1. Initiate and incentivize climate-positive (climate smart) criteria for building permit approvals at the municipal level. For example, building regulators – be it cities, states or national governments, depending on the regulatory structure – could start by testing voluntary life cycle analysis (LCA) submission to accelerate building permit approvals. Information gleaned from this voluntary process would inform best practices that would become mandatory regulations. 

  2. Appoint a carbon accounting expert within building departments. Embodied carbon is notoriously difficult to measure but new tools are emerging to improve methodologies. Given the evolving nature of carbon accounting in the built environment, an embodied carbon emissions expert would be an interpreter of the latest science and methodologies. Much like chief sustainability officers, carbon emissions accountants should be part of this global platform, meet regularly and share learnings. Annual external audits should be issued for consistency and transparency. 

  3. Conduct a national building carbon footprint analysis. This forecast of embodied carbon can begin with business as usual (BAU) footprints for projected construction. Once a baseline is established, scenarios can be developed with different substitution values for various bio-based materials and technologies. Consider other material substitutions for primary and secondary layers of the structures, with varying replacement timelines. And finally, include operational carbon, especially heating, cooling and other electrical loads.

  4. Reform building codes to encourage, and require, low carbon bio-based solutions, especially for urban buildings. Many of these code upgrades are already in use or development in municipalities around the world and best practices can be gleaned and re-formatted for local context. Adding engineering expertise on timber construction to national and urban building departments can accelerate updates and help build a more confident culture of low carbon solutions. Partnerships with local research institutions to conduct fire and seismic load tests,  in concert with international partners, will add credibility and interest in new methods and innovations.

  5. Conduct a national Materials Flow Analysis (MFA). Measuring the total construction timber used annually at a national level, domestic and imported, gives officials a much clearer idea of the climate and economic impacts of biobased flows. These data can then be compared to other materials, like concrete and steel to estimate carbon savings if changes are made. Other fibers such as bamboo, date palm, may also have a commercial contribution to local building materials. Including bio-fiber products like paper, furniture, firewood and biomass energy production will add further context and additional opportunities for carbon savings.

  6. Conduct a National Forest Inventory - including forest products if relevant. What is the size and condition of the national forests? What is the current timber production capacity, and projected for 10 years? Compare domestic timber production with imports. Consider the volume of domestic and imported timber products against urban construction materials substitution.

  7. Fund a pilot program for public low-carbon buildings using timber or bio-based structural frames. With the majority of embodied carbon in the structure of urban buildings, this focus allows for early return on investment for all stakeholders. With a wealth of solutions already available, a funded pilot can help design teams and contractors get new projects quickly over the hurdles. Starting with simple, moderate-visibility structures will reduce risks and costs while ensuring the story is accessible.. Small and medium-sized schools, office buildings or housing would be ideal.  See the National Resources Canada Greening Construction with Wood programs’ Canadian National Nuclear Laboratory buildings)

  8. Incentivize and support private sector development that uses a bio-based/timber structural solution. With a combination of tax incentives, planning permissions or innovation and development financing, governments can make it easier for the private sector developers to test and invest in biobased material solutions. These incentives should fit in lock step with new building regulations, and pilot programs. Developments like a major hotel or condominium building would signal social acceptability of timber structure and help unlock local interest and demand for timber solutions.

  9. Develop the “long life” Timber Value Chain – local, regional and global – to shift  production from short life to long-life timber products. Linking the many value chain stakeholders in a common mission can help focus resources and identify gaps. Public, private and third sectors can all play a role and invest in skills, culture and technology to strengthen local and regional “forest-to-building” value chains. These investments of funds and other resources can be strategically distributed between local initiatives and international partnerships, for example companies setting up production facilities, university research partnerships, agreements between buyers and sellers and networks supporting climate-positive forestry and buildings.

  10. Direct development funding to support innovation in bio-based materials and sustainably sourced forest products. Value chains extend beyond national boundaries and some vital “links” will likely fall on either side of the border. A holistic and global view of the value chain will likely produce better results in-country. Direct partnerships could be set up with adjacent countries, or major exporters of materials and technology, and could be supported by an international fund to offset development and systems change costs.

Learn more about the Forest Positive Buildings Resource Platform.

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