Canada could drastically cut its building emissions by adopting mass timber construction, says a report by Royal Bank of Canada. Although mass timber currently comprises just 1% of North America's construction sector, swapping it for concrete and steel could lower emissions by 12% to 25%.
Mass timber is showing great promise in reducing the carbon footprint of buildings, and Canada is in a strong position to lead this change. According to a recent report by the RBC Climate Action Institute, mass timber has a far lower emission profile than traditional construction materials like concrete or steel. Yet, it only makes up 1% of the North American construction industry.
The report highlights that the emissions from concrete and steel are six and five times greater than wood, respectively. These materials contributed to 6% of Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions in 2022. By replacing concrete and steel with mass timber, buildings could see a 12% to 25% drop in emissions.
Canada's building sector is a significant contributor to the country's emissions, accounting for 13% or 92 million metric tons of CO₂ e in 2022. The country aims to cut this to 53 million metric tons by 2030. Adopting mass timber for residential and commercial projects could be a major step towards this goal.
Several provinces are already leading the way. British Columbia and Quebec have completed 257 and 184 mass timber projects, respectively, while Ontario is following closely with 90 projects. British Columbia is particularly forward-thinking, with policies like the 2009's Wood First Act and adjustments to building codes to accommodate timber constructions.
Besides environmental benefits, the increased use of mass timber could boost the wood products market by at least $1 billion by 2030. However, there are challenges to be addressed. For instance, insurance underwriting has emerged as a major obstacle, adding significantly to the cost of timber projects.
Moreover, scaling operations is not straightforward. The machinery and technology for mass timber are primarily produced by a few European manufacturers, and the high cost is a barrier for new players. Setting up a manufacturing facility with 50,000 m2 capacity could cost as much as $200 million, with machinery making up the bulk of the expenses.
Mass timber offers a viable and sustainable alternative to traditional construction materials. While there are challenges to overcome, the potential benefits are significant, ranging from emission reductions to economic gains. As Canada aims for a greener future, embracing mass timber could be a step in the right direction.