Environmental and energy balances of wood products and substitutes


The FAO Forestry Department promotes, among others, the responsible use of wood as an environmentally friendly raw material. In the last decades, wood and wood-based products have been faced with stronger competition from substitute materials, such as plastics, concrete, steel, glass or aluminium, as these materials appear to offer wider options to the customers. Some of the factors that can influence customers’ decisions on what kind of end products to acquire include marketing efforts, product prices, quality, durability and image.

Conflicting and often opposing views exist about the environmental consequences of using wood products. On the one hand, environmental concerns related to deforestation, forest degradation and losses in biodiversity lead to a negative image of wood products, in particular those made of wood from the tropics. On the other, a wide range of producers and consumers are aware of their positive environmental aspects. For example, wood is a renewable and recyclable raw material, which cannot only be used in different end products but can also become a source of renewable energy. In fact, a wider utilization of wood products made from well-managed resources can contribute significantly to achieving sustainable development.

However, it should be noted that many of the environmental advantages of wood products had not been scientifically evaluated until the early 1990s, when the life cycle assessment (LCA) approach was developed.

The present study tries to provide factual information on the environmental and energy balances of wood in certain products compared to major substitutes, applying the LCA methodology. It intends to assist policy-makers, producers, consumers and other interest groups to better understand the environmental benefits of using wood, instead of non-renewable raw materials, in the manufacture of some products such as, for instance, houses, sheds, window frames and flooring. Future efforts should also be made to follow the same methodology in analysing different solid wood products, products made of composite materials including wood, or wood-based panels for various uses.

Specific thanks are recorded to Dr Mohammad Scharai-Rad from the University of Hamburg, Department of Wood Technology, and Dr Johannes Welling from the Federal Research Centre for Forestry and Forest Products in Hamburg, for their excellent work in carrying out the review and related analysis.

Wulf Killmann
Forest Products Division
Forestry Department

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