Beware of “localism” as an automatic “green ticket” for wood products
It is all too easy to use “local” sourcing as a default setting to guarantee a low environmental impact. The most obvious example is the transportation of food products; “Why buy apples from New Zealand when we grow our own in UK?” is a well-trodden green argument? The problem is that we are now applying this over simplified approach to an increasingly wider range of products and industries. The result is a widespread generalisation that locally sourced produce is automatically “greener” because of the small distance it has been transported. Wrong. This is a dangerous assumption to make and it is dependent on how you define “local” and what type of transport is used.
Wood products are a case in point. Raw material and finished product are moved all around the world by sea freight and as the AHEC LCA study confirms, the environmental impact is far lower than other forms of transport such as rail and road. The initial Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) data on U.S. hardwood lumber exported to Europe, confirms that forest extraction and the sawmilling process make up a small part of the overall impact and that it is the kiln drying of the lumber, not the transport that is the biggest factor in determining impacts such as Global Warming Potential (GWP). In fact, transporting American hardwoods by ship 6000 km across the Atlantic requires little more energy than an overland journey of 500km.
So beware of those who claim that buying European hardwood is always better for the environment than importing hardwood species from the USA. Sometimes it may be true, but it all depends on where in Europe the lumber is sourced and consumed. For example importing white oak lumber from the East Coast of the USA to the UK may have a lower transport footprint than bringing a truckload of European oak all the way by road from Croatia.
Demonstrating the full environmental impacts of wood products through LCA will, we believe, be the best way for wood to compete with other materials, but it will also help markets make more informed choices when it comes to choosing which wood product will provide the best environmental solution.
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