Carbon Footprint of Timber, Wood, Plywood (Building Materials Footprint)

Man in a forest with an ax surrounded by felled trees and stumps sees a emissions cloud in the shape of a footprint and wonders about the carbon footprint of timber, and the carbon footprint of wood products made from felled trees.

If you’re building a house or doing improvements on your property, you may have wondered about the carbon footprint of timber, plywood, and other building materials.

The construction industry consumes a lot of resources, but timber is also harvested to create a number of products people buy and use everyday, including furniture and packaging.

Understanding how to calculate the carbon footprint of timber is one of the best ways to identify ways to reduce it, and this comprehensive guide provides key information about how to measure the carbon footprint of a variety of building materials, including wood.

To get started, you can calculate your construction project’s footprint here:

Carbon Footprint of Wood: Does Using Timber Release CO2?

In addition to being a fantastic source of oxygen, forests are also sources of natural wood.But, when wood is used to create a structure, a large portion of the emissions remain stored in the renewable resource.

The carbon footprint of wood is explained as follows:

  • Wood consists of 50% CO2 based on dry wood.
  • By implementing wood in a building, CO2 is stored and not emitted back into the air.

Carbon Footprint of Wood Products

Because wood manufacturing requires bio-energy, the final products store CO2, making the process energy efficient.

This is why some wood products have negative CO2 footprints because their prolonged use produces net carbon storage.26

Photo of a room made from planks of wood.

(Image: White.Rainforest ™︎ ∙ 易雨白林.35)

However, if the processing doesn’t utilize biofuel and other green energy sources, then the resulting emissions from the processing can outweigh the carbon sequestration power of the timber.

The carbon footprint of wood products is explained and measured using an easy-to-remember formula:

A – B – C – D = E

A – Represents the manufacturing process and the energy production that produces CO2.

B – Represents the bio-fuel usage during the manufacturing process, which decreases the carbon footprint of wood products.

C – Represents CO2, which is absorbed during photosynthesis. The CO2 is converted to several parts of the tree, but when the tree decomposes or burns, all the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. However, when a wood product is in use, it stores CO2 away from the atmosphere.

D – Represents wood alternatives that are more energy-intensive during the manufacturing process than natural wood. Wood products with a smaller fossil fuel carbon footprint can be used as a substitute for a non-wood alternative which decreases the carbon footprint of wood products.

E – Is the resulting total CO2 footprint (B, C, and D assist in reducing the carbon footprint of wood products, and together their effects are greater than A.7

Carbon Footprint of Plywood

Plywood is made from peeled wood and is glued together in thin layers to achieve a cross-grain pattern.

Photo of piles of plywood in a storage.

(Image: Fuzier julien35)

The carbon footprint of plywood is positive net: 500kg of carbon emissions while capturing around 700kg of CO2.27

The following table indicates the sustainability of each stage of plywood’s lifecycle:8

Stages Throughout the Lifecycle of Plywood Sustainability
Sourcing (components) Highly sustainable because of carbon sequestration and usable wood percentages.
Manufacturing The carbon footprint of plywood manufacturing is high but converting wood waste into pellets does offset some of the CO2 emissions.
Transporting Transporting plywood products can cause high CO2 emissions, but locally grown wood conversion to plywood can lower the CO2 footprint. (Only if sold locally).
Usage Highly sustainable because of the product’s carbon-capturing abilities.
End of Life Sustainable when recycled. (Plywood is not biodegradable).

Where Does Timber Come From?

Timber is wood that has been prepared for construction and building purposes. The process of preparing wood is extensive and the following steps answer the main question, where does timber come from?28

  1. Felling (usually during winter)
  2. Preparation (felled trees are stored in the forest before transporting to allow excess water to evaporate from the logs)
  3. Transportation (before being transported, the logs are cut into smaller pieces.
  4. Site (when the logs arrive at the specified site, they are peeled (debarked) and bucked (cut roughly into boards, and then finished off)
  5. Seasoning (after being cut and finished, the boards are seasoned to allow the rest of the stored water to evaporate.

Final touches are then applied to the boards before they are shipped to merchants.9

Carbon Footprint of Timber

Timber is known to reduce CO2; therefore, the carbon footprint of timber is explained as follows:

For every dry ton of manufactured timber, around 1.8 tons of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.

What Type of Resource Is Timber?

After examining the carbon footprint of timber, the next logical question asked is, what type of resource is timber?

Timber is a natural resource as well as a renewable resource.

Why Is Timber Renewable?

The use of wood as a building material dates back thousands of years. The first humans are believed to have lived in the woods, and in modern times the return using this renewable source for building purposes is advancing swiftly.29

Why is timber renewable?

  • Carbon capture abilities
  • Carbon storage abilities
  • Low embodied energy
  • Versatile
  • Easy to build with
  • Naturally insulating
  • Can be recycled10

Non-Renewable Resources in the Timber Industry

Because trees are often replanted after being cut down for timber industry purposes, the wood industry is touted as being renewable and sustainable.

However non-renewable resources in the timber industry exist in the form of the logging process.

It was announced in 2019 that logging is the leading cause of CO2 emissions from forests in the US. Deforestation (mainly caused by illegal logging) is also increasing global temperatures.11

Graph that shows the tropical deforestation carbon footprint inclusing Russia, India, EU, Tropical Tree, US, China.

The above chart indicates the carbon footprint of tropical deforestation, estimated in annual CO2 (Gt/year).

Timber Resources Solution

The timber resources solution (deforestation solution) is laid out as follows:

  • Recycling
  • Eco-forestry
  • Enforcing the law
  • Vigilant community forestry
  • Reforestation
  • Education with the use of ongoing campaigns
  • Joining forces (wildlife, rainforest, and conservation agencies or programs)
  • Effective land use planning

How Can Timber Production Be Increased Without Causing More Environmental Damage

When asking the question, how can timber production be increased without causing more environmental damage, the answer lies in the disposal of wood waste.12

Graph that shows the timber production with less carbon footprint.

The illustration above shows the disposal of wood waste.

Carbon Footprint of Timber

The carbon footprint of timber also considers the benefits of plantation forests and old-growth forests.

  • Plantation forests differ from natural forests in that it is strictly managed, and comprise only one or two tree species with one age class. The trees in plantation forests are regularly spaced.
  • Old-growth forests are largely defined as forests that have developed over a long time span.

What Benefit Do Plantation Forests Have Over Old Growth Timber in Regard to CO2 Capture?

Taking care of mature forests (old-growth forests) is key to fighting climate change. Plantation forests, too, help mitigate the effects of climate change.30

When asking the question, what benefit do plantation forests have over old-growth timber in regard to CO2 capture, the answer is laid out as follows:

  • Younger trees and forests often absorb more CO2 and the carbon absorption rate increases as the tree ages.
  • Therefore, the concept of plantation forests and old-growth timber forests work together to increase CO2 absorption efforts.13

Read More About: How Many Trees Cut Down Each Year or in 2022? The Deforestation Crisis Explained

Timber / Wood Carbon Footprint Calculator

A basic timber/wood carbon footprint calculator requires the following inputs:

  • Amount of carbon in the product (considering that the generic carbon content of wood is an estimated 50% of its weight.
  • Amount of years product is stored (product can include plywood, sawn timber, particleboard, etc.)
  • Source of timber/wood product (percentage/biomass)
  • These inputs will reveal the results in kgCO2eq, and the results are based on the amount of CO2 emitted and absorbed, as well as the characterization factor.

Building Materials Carbon Footprint Calculator

A basic building material carbon footprint calculator requires the following inputs:31

Timber (when calculating the carbon footprint of timber)

  • Material
  • Source
  • Quantity
  • Units
  • The result is revealed in upfront carbon (kgCO2eq)14

The same principle applies to other building materials including steel and concrete.

The sample data inside the calculator should contain the height of the building and the square meter size of the building.

Knowing the carbon footprint of building materials will help determine the environmental impact of construction projects and find ways to reduce them through various means. There are carbon offset programs like climate plus program green construction that help builders reduce carbon emissions.

What Is FSC Certification?

To ensure that timber is sourced properly and from forests that are managed according to the set standards, timber operators and suppliers are given an FSC certification.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification means that ethical production methods have been followed, and that timber has been sourced while keeping environmental impacts in mind.32

Why Is It Important That Timber Operators and Suppliers Have an FSC Endorsed Certification?

The most common question regarding FSC certification is, why is it important that timber operators and suppliers have an FSC-endorsed certification?

Having an FSC-endorsed certification ensures:15

  • Zero Deforestation: Trees are managed in a responsible and ethical manner to ensure no net loss of forest.
  • Fair Work Environment (Including Fair Wages): Workers receive proper training and work in safe environments.
  • Protected Biodiversity: Both animals and plants are protected (biodiversity).
  • Rights of Communities Upheld: Communities are involved in discussions surrounding forest and land resources.

Why Is It Important To Get Timber From a Certified Source Such as NSW State Forests?

The other important question regarding FSC certification is, why is it important to get timber from a certified source such as NSW state forests?33

  • Certified proof of sustainable management of forests
  • Support of local economies and protection of local jobs
  • NSW timber is renewable and recyclable
  • Climate-friendly processes
  • Versatile timber
  • Unique properties including acoustic, insulation, and energy-efficient properties
  • Timber products to suit every requirement
  • Cost-effective (compared to steel, tiles, concrete, and bricks)16

FSC Certified Companies

FSC-certified companies can be found on the FSC Certificate Database. This database contains up-to-date information regarding FSC certification and can be used to verify FSC certification or search for FSC-certified companies.17

FSC Certification Requirements

FSC certification requirements are as follows:

  • Forest managers must contact an FSC-accredited certification body.
  • Forest managers that are eligible for FSC accreditation must contact a group manager to establish the process of joining a forest management group certificate.
  • Companies that seek chain-of-custody certification must contact an FSC-accredited certification body.
  • If eligible, the company should contact a group manager to join a relevant group.

FSC Certified Products

FSC-certified products include:

  • Fashion Products (clothing and hangers)
  • Furniture and Homeware (including DIY)
  • Beauty and Wellness
  • Sports and Hobbies
  • Stationary (including paper and magazine)

FSC Certified Plywood

FSC-certified plywood refers to

  • Plywood sourced from sustainably managed woods and forests

Additional factors for the certification of plywood include:34

  • Formaldehyde CO2 emissions that comply with different certification grades: E1, E0, and CARB P2
  • Surfaces for plywood are included in the certification, therefore FSC certified surfaces such as eucalyptus veneer and poplar veneer are available.

FSC-certified plywood is usually supplied as follows:

  • Front and back – FSC-certified veneer
  • Core – poplar or hardwood core
  • Glue – E1, E0 or CARB P2, WBP (phenolic or melamine)
  • Size – 1220 x 2440 (mm), 1250 x 2500 (mm)
  • Thickness – 5.2 millimeters to 30 millimeters18

FSC Certified Packaging

FSC-certified packaging refers to packaging materials sourced from responsibly managed forests. Before FSC packaging can be certified, materials, including the wood that is packaged must be traceable.

Important factors to consider regarding FSC certification are:

Photo that shows the factors to consider when entering FSC certification.There are 3 FSC labels:

  1. FSC 100% – 100% original material from FSC-certified woods
  2. FSC Mix – a mix of original material and recycled material (percentages indicated)
  3. FSC Recycled – 100% recycled fiber, with percentages indicated19

What Is FSC-Certified Wood?

A common question asked about wood and timber products is, what is FSC-certified wood?

The simple answer is: FSC-certified wood is produced wood and wood products that meet the requirements of the FSC (manufacturing processes included).

Is FSC Wood Waterproof?

Another common question about FSC-certified wood is, is FSC wood waterproof?

In general, FSC-certified wood is waterproof, hardy, and low-maintenance.

FSC-certified timber (sustainably sourced timber) and wood can reduce an entire building’s carbon footprint by 60%. The certification process also takes into consideration the components that make up the carbon footprint of timber.

Do Trees Release Carbon Dioxide When Harvested?

Trees worldwide help mitigate the impact of climate change. As carbon sinks, forests around the world help decrease the temperature by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it, as well as regulating the “rivers of water” in the atmosphere.

But, do trees release carbon dioxide? Yes, both during their natural lifetime, but even more so when burned.

Trees do release CO2 as part of their lifecycle and physiology. But, more importantly, trees release oxygen through photosynthesis.23

Wildfire prevention is crucial because burning trees release all the carbon dioxide they have absorbed over time back into the atmosphere.4

How Much CO2 Does a Hectare of Forest Absorb Per Year?

When considering the important function that trees play in producing oxygen, the next question is, how much CO2 does a hectare of forest absorb per year?

Photo of a small pathway within the shade of tall trees.

(Image: Rodion Kutsaiev35)

It is estimated that a single hectare of forest absorbs up to 10 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

It is also estimated that forests absorb at least twice as much CO2 as they emit every year.24

However, forests can act as both a sink and source of carbon:

  1. Established forest – carbon sink
  2. Degraded forest – carbon source
  3. Young forest – carbon sink5

How Much CO2 Does a Young Tree Absorb?

Another important question regarding the CO2 absorbing abilities of trees is, how much CO2 does a young tree absorb?

A single young tree can absorb at least 13 pounds of CO2 every year:

  • Trees are most actively absorbing CO2 when they are around 10 years old. At that point, they are absorbing a minimum of 48 pounds of CO2 every year.
  • Ten-year-old trees emit enough oxygen to support two human beings, and it has been estimated that planting 100 million trees could help remove around 18 million tons of CO2 every year.
  • The removal of this amount of CO2 will save consumers an estimated $4 billion in utilities every year.6

Are Old Mature Forests Are Carbon Sinks?

Studies have revealed that the answer to the question, of are old mature forests carbon sinks, is yes.

Old mature forests, known as old-growth forests, remove CO2 from the atmosphere after which it is stored in live tissue while decomposing organic matter.

Photo of a virtin forest with tall and straight trees.

(Image: Lukasz Szmigiel35)

However, other research has determined that the argument about mature forests being carbon sinks may be overestimated.25

But there’s no denying that trees are holding in vast amounts of emissions and should be protected.

What Is Carbon Footprint?

When asking the question, what is carbon footprint, the simplest answer is: A carbon footprint is the total amount of carbon and methane emissions produced by different activities.

A personal carbon footprint is determined by the following activities:20

  • Miles traveled using various modes of transport
  • Residential energy consumption
  • Time and money spent on different purchases (shopping)
  • Personal diet

A corporate carbon footprint includes the following activities:

  • Manufacturing and production
  • Transportation and shipping
  • Energy consumption1

Continuously increasing carbon emissions are causing global warming and climate change. It is predicted that the planet will be 2 degrees warmer soon and that global temperatures will continue to rise.

The below table indicates the top 10 carbon-emitting countries around the world (totals are indicated in CO2 in Mt).2

Photo of the total CO2 in Mt per Top 10 CO2 Emitting Country

CO2-Emitting Country Ranking Total CO2 in Mt
China 1 11680.42 CO2 in Mt
US 2 4535.30 CO2 in Mt
India 3 2411.73 CO2 in Mt
Russia 4 1674.23 CO2 in Mt
Japan 5 1061.77 CO2 in Mt
Iran 6 690.24 CO2 in Mt
Germany 7 636.88 CO2 in Mt
South Korea 8 621.47 CO2 in Mt
Saudi Arabia 9 588.81 CO2 in Mt
Indonesia 10 568.27 CO2 in Mt

Carbon Emissions Per Country and Carbon Neutral vs Net Zero

The total carbon emissions per country is typically calculated per capita.21 But, the carbon neutral vs net zero debate is part of the global carbon footprint discussion as well.

Businesses around the world are pledging to become carbon-neutral or net-zero, and it is important to understand the difference between these two concepts.22

  1. Carbon neutral refers to the offsetting of the total amount of CO2 emissions (balancing out).
  2. Net zero refers to zero emissions emitted from the start, which means there are no emissions to be offset.3

Photo that shows the definition of carbon neutral, climate positive, carbon positive, net zero carbon emissions, net zero emissions.

Part of these global emissions are naturally generated by construction and building materials, so understanding the carbon footprint of timber and how it’s used can help countries reduce their per capita footprints through alternative products and carbon offsets.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Carbon Footprint of Timber

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Timber?

The overall carbon footprint of timber is relatively small. For a single dry ton of timber produced, around 1.8 tons of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Steel?

CO2 released as a direct result of steel (crude) production, is estimated to be 1.4 tons per ton of steel.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Polyester?

The carbon footprint of polyester is: 2x m2 polyester is equal to 6.4kg of CO2 emissions.

Is Timber a Natural Resource?

Yes, timber is a natural and renewable resource.

Is Timber Environmentally Friendly?

Timber is the most environmentally friendly building material, compared to other traditional building materials.

How Much CO2 Does an Acre of Forest Absorb Per Year?

A single acre of forest (woods) can absorb around 4.5 to 40.7 tons of CO2. In addition, a single acre of forest can release up to 4 tons of oxygen.

Why Do Trees Store CO2 More Efficiently Than Smaller Shrubs and Grasses?

When trees capture carbon dioxide, they store it in their leaves and biomass. Shrubs and grasses tend to store CO2 underground.

How Many Trees Will Offset My Carbon Footprint?

Assuming that a personal diet consists of 2,000 calories per day, 15 trees will be required to offset a person’s carbon footprint (if only considering diet). One human’s fossil fuel usage and CO2 production require around 730 trees to offset it.

Read More About Carbon Footprint of Timber


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