Cross-laminated timber, or CLT, is touted as a more sustainable option for building construction than concrete and steel. But is it really? The answer is complicated.
CLT is intended to replace concrete and steel whose production accounts for about 13% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Wood in CLT panels pulled CO2 from the atmosphere, and that carbon should remain locked up as long as the building stands.
Some forest scientists, climate modelers, and materials experts question how much of an environmental net gain results from using CLT to replace concrete and steel. Part of the concern relates to choices the lumber industry makes in forestry practices and manufacturing.
Lots of carbon gets dumped into the atmosphere when logs are transformed into CLT, they say. Sawmills and CLT plants typically burn bark, sawdust, and other wood wastes for heat, releasing carbon. Piles of branches, treetops, and smaller trees left behind after a harvest are often burned or left to decompose—releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
When it comes to combating global climate change, the mantra of “wood is good” may be simplistic.