(Excerpt from Sustainability, Wood and the Environment Environmental – claims being made by the wood industry must be carefully evaluated – A White Paper by the American Institute of Steel Construction October 2016)
A simple Google search of environmental impacts related to wood yields 5.67 million suggested links. The sheer volume of the often contradictory claims regarding the sustainability of wood products is overwhelming and confusing. Clearly there is more information than the most diligent researcher could possibly pursue. And even if it were possible to read each document, it would become quickly evident that each report or study carries with it a distinct set of biases. Some are written from the perspective of those who wish to protect our forests, many are written by the wood industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoting the increased use of wood. Others are written by competing industries attempting to protect their slice of the market and others still are written by academics seeking accurate measures of environmental impacts.
The majority of these contradictory reports are “scientifically” defensible. How can defensible reports be in contradiction with each other? The answer is simple—each report is based on a different set of assumptions regarding the type of wood being considered, the forest management and harvesting practices being employed, the treatment of by-products and waste, the boundaries applied to the study, the type of life cycle assessment being performed, the methodology of the life cycle assessment being utilized and the basis of comparisons being made to other materials.
Clearly the buyer must beware. Making beneficial assumptions, selecting the “right” methodology and limiting the scope of the study can always result in a positive message. However the closer those a priories are examined simple statements such as “wood is a green material that sequesters carbon and has the least environmental impacts of any material” do not stand the test of rigorous analysis. To objectively consider the environmental impacts of wood (or any material) several key questions must be asked:
- What assumptions are being made?
- What product boundaries are being imposed?
- What impacts are being considered?
- What methodology is being used?
- What comparisons are being made?