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How we can build a sustainable future with timber


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We must recognise the importance of timber in overcoming our climate challenge.

Climate change is here, we can see that in the world around us. There are going to be more severe weather events. More frequent and intense droughts, storms, and heat waves. Rising sea levels, melting glaciers and warming oceans. Both people, and the natural world, animals and ecosystems, are in incredible danger in what is the greatest challenge we have ever faced. If we are to limit the damage, now is the time to act.

The strong moral imperative to overthrow the status quo has been joined in recent years by powerful social, political, and business movements. Never has there been such broad alignment – nor opportunities – to reshape the way we live. Millions of people have taken to the streets around the world calling on governments to act now, and the UK has responded by committing to the world’s most ambitious climate change target, in law, to reduce carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. We must match our policies and actions to the ambition of this target.

One of our biggest roadblocks to making the changes necessary is a mindset which perceives the shift to a net zero economy as down the road, in the future. Which relies upon unproven technologies to decarbonise the industries and systems which caused the problem in the first place. This is evident in our built environment, which despite being responsible for nearly half of emissions in the UK, has barely changed in nearly half a century. Houses are being built now in a near identical way to how they were 50, 80 or even a few hundred years ago. This does not match up to the threat of climate change, to which we must respond far quicker, and with far greater imagination if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophe.

We must create a foundational shift in the way we build, the quality of our homes, how we move around our cities, and the landscapes around them if we are to create a low-carbon future. At the centre of this shift will be our architects, designers, and engineers, and a low-carbon material revolution. While the 20th century may have been defined by steel and concrete, in the 21st we must live in greater harmony with nature, and create a stronger forestry and timber industry which works with our planet rather than against it.

Our markets can and must play a dominant role in reducing emissions, and right now, within timber and forestry, the UK has an existing supply chain we can level up to help us meet our climate targets in construction. Using timber reduces the carbon emissions from construction in three main ways. It acts as a form of carbon capture and storage, as the carbon dioxide sequestered by trees is stored in the wood product created for the product’s lifetime. It increases the number of trees grown in sustainably managed forests, which helps to sequester even more carbon dioxide. And it displaces carbon-intensive materials to reduce the carbon footprint of a building.

We already have world-leading technical expertise in our universities, architects at the forefront of sustainable design, and an enthusiastic potential workforce who are at the forefront of sustainable construction using timber. With the right policy framework, we can help this sector to flourish, and create a prosperous net zero economy.

A shift towards using more wood in construction has been repeatedly recommended by our independent advisor to government on climate policy, the Climate Change Committee. This Government has recognised the importance of this market in their recent England Tree Action Plan, which follows on from the Clean Growth Strategy, and 25 Year Environment Plan. each of which pledge to support more timber in construction.

Now is the time to put forward policies to reach net zero, and address all the emissions which come from construction

This Government has already committed to building 300,000 homes in England each year to make it possible for more people to own a home – a place for people to call their own, for families to raise their kids and build their lives. Significant progress has been made – in the year before the pandemic, more than 244,000 homes were added to the UKs supply – but we have an opportunity to do more.

I would like to put the case forward that we must build these homes more sustainably, and that we must build more of these homes using timber. We are placing ourselves on a pathway towards sustainability with the Future Homes Standard, which aims to make our houses more efficient, but this is only half the journey. Now is the time to put forward policies to reach net zero, and address all the emissions which come from construction.

This report seeks to outline the policies we can use to grow our timber and forestry supply chain to build more houses which will be better quality, safer, more beautiful, healthier, and more sustainable. As we work to relaunch the APPG for the Timber Industries, I hope to see my fellows MPs connect with the thousands of businesses who are working in every constituency in the UK, and the passionate people who work in it.

COP26 is taking place in Glasgow in November 2021. For the first time ever, COP is to have a day dedicated to cities and the built environment on 11 November.

It is time to show the world that we can build more, we can build better, and we can build lower-carbon. And we can do it now.

If you are an MP and would like to join the APPG for the Timber Industries, please email [email protected] for an invitation to the IGM. Following the IGM, a new report will be launched detailing ‘How the timber industries can help solve the housing crisis’.

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