Wood may be poised for a new role as a building material, thanks to technologies that permit raising higher structures using the natural substance and the soaring environmental costs of using steel and concrete.

The manufacturing and use of concrete, the most widely utilized material on Earth, and steel is projected to cause as much as 600 million tons of greenhouse emissions to be released each year by 2050, according to Wired. If the equivalent number of buildings were constructed from wooden materials, they would store up to 680 million tons of emissions per year.

A new study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which highlights the benefits of wooden buildings and praises the material as a carbon dioxide sink, may spur a timber revival. A return to wood materials, however, would require a large increase in the amount of trees planted as well as careful sustainable forest management.

“The production of cement and steel will remain a major source of greenhouse gas emissions unless appropriately addressed,” said the study’s lead author, Galina Churkina, who is affiliated with the Potsdam Institute and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

More than a century ago, concrete and steel displaced wood as a major construction material because those materials were stronger and permitted multiple-story construction. Today, the composite wood materials known as cross-laminated timber and glue-laminated timber are being used more and more in new construction because, pound-for-pound, they are as strong as wood but don’t have any of the organic weaknesses, Wired said.

Ironically, one of the drawbacks to the composite wood materials is that it weighs so much less than steel and concrete. A high-rise building constructed from timber would sway faster in the wind than a steel-and-concrete one and lead its occupants to become seasick. Human weakness prevents the construction of wooden skyscrapers for now.

Builders are experimenting with wood. The world’s tallest wood structure, Norway’s 18-story, 280-foot Mjøstårnet, was finished in March.

Even so, “trees offer us a technology of unparalleled perfection,” said Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, co-author of the study and the institute’s director emeritus, in a statement. “If we engineer the wood into modern building materials and smartly manage harvest and construction, we humans can build ourselves a safe home on Earth.”  

  • Scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder, are working on cutting the number of greenhouse gases produced during the production of concrete. Earlier this month, they published a report on a process of producing bricks using cyanobacteria, microbes that capture energy through photosynthesis. 
  • A handful of startups also are attempting to bring new ways of making cement to market. Solidia created a cement formula that absorbs carbon dioxide, reducing emissions by 70%; it is still in a pilot phase. Biomason uses bacteria to grow sand-based bricks, a zero-emission process, and is working to expand beyond specialty contractors. 
  • Banks and insurers are becoming increasingly concerned about the risks climate change is bringing to business, with “stranded assets,” or useless infrastructure, among the main concerns for future costs.