The UK Government has announced that it has a target to achieve Carbon Net Zero by 2050; yet at present, there is no road map to how this will be achieved.

There is a real risk that we will not meet these targets and the opportunity to address the global climate change issue will be lost. Will future generations look back at 2020 and see it as the year the construction industry failed them?

We are at a crossroads in the UK and on a global basis: the world has woken up to the detrimental impact that we are having on the planet and recognises that it is time to act. As individuals we can make a difference in how we behave, in the choices that we make and with our actions; however, this is not enough. It is at the centre of government that the most decisive action is needed to arrest the march of climate change.

Crucially, with the global population increasing and steadily becoming more urbanised, there is an urgent need to change how we build high density and single-family housing. There is an obvious answer: to use renewable, sustainable and environmentally positive materials produced in such a way that there is a lighter impact on the planet.

One such material is timber, however there is a misconception by certain parties that have a clear agenda as to timber’s suitability as a major construction material; consequently, timber is considered a risk for some insurers and finance houses to support or to invest in timber construction projects. A basic lack of understanding of the facts put us in danger of creating problems for the future of the economy and the environment.

The construction industry has a tremendous opportunity to make a significant and meaningful contribution to the delivery of the whole climate change agenda. That is why we – the construction industry – owe it to future generations to challenge these misconceptions and demonstrate to the financial and insurance industries that timber is a viable and sustainable long-term solution to the country’s environmental and housing crises.

With ambitious targets set for the UK to reach carbon net zero by 2050, timber is the primary building material that will help the country reach its targets: it is sustainable, replenishable, and can be positively recycled at the end of use. Opponents may point to the risk of fire; however, self-interest has caused some to ignore the body of evidence that exists regarding the very predictable nature of timber and how it performs. Furthermore, the impact of good design, engineering, detailing and construction has been wilfully overlooked.

Whilst timber is the chosen building material for many of the country’s leading housebuilders, there is a whole world of construction that could benefit from the learnings this progressive sector has made by adopting offsite and MMC techniques. These insights could have a profound effect if they are extended to the wider construction market, where the full impact of timber on the carbon footprint of a project will have a demonstrable benefit.

This is in harmony with the Government’s agenda of Building Back Better – with its emphasis on green initiatives – which clearly recognises that there is a need to create jobs to avoid a financial downturn. But we should be creating those jobs to ensure the green transition happens as quickly as possible, which in turn propels us towards net zero carbon. Sustainable projects are a critical way that the Government can create jobs and replenish local economies to protect communities from future environmental and health hazards.

In the current economic climate, it is noted that investors – both corporate and individual – are demanding better standards from the companies and funds they hold. Positive financial returns are naturally expected, but there is a growing interest in seeing environmental, sustainable and governance (ESG) principles being applied. This may be commercial pragmatism in response to public and government sentiment, but it cannot be ignored; viable, reliable and robust solutions are available today and for a renewable future.

Indeed, according to a recent article in the Financial Times (13th April 2020), the majority of ESG funds outperform the wider market over 10 years. This study of sustainable funds counters claims that ESG investment comes at the expense of performance. What’s more, with a growing focus on the effects of modern ways of life to health and mental well-being that the recent pandemic has only served to amplify; it has been proven that timber structures provide for a better living, working and learning environment.

This is a huge year for climate and the financial services sector holds the key. The Time for Timber campaign has been founded to directly target the financial and insurance industries, to counter the misconceptions around timber and deliver a compelling narrative about its place in the sustainable buildings of our future.

Now is the time for timber. Now is the time to invest in building in timber; for the prosperity of the country and its residents, for employment, for the economy and – ultimately – for safeguarding the environment, today and tomorrow.

Timber as part of the circular economy; the safest and most effective carbon store.

Currently, the construction industry represents around 10% of total UK carbon emissions and directly contributes to a further 47%. As a result, the industry finds itself in a position of great responsibility and influence with regards to the nation’s climate change efforts.

As timber trees grow, they naturally absorb carbon, which continues to be stored when the material is transformed into structural timber products. Timber absorbs and stores more carbon than it emits during processing and installation. These engineered solutions act as an effective carbon store when used as part of a building. When the building has reached the end of its use, this stored carbon can either be re-used as fuel, or will naturally filter back into the soil. By comparison, the use of concrete and steel within construction leads to considerably more energy and carbon usage. To this end, a report published by Chatham House (Making Concrete Change: June 2018) show that cement is the source of 4-8% of total global carbon dioxide emissions. Conversely, more carbon dioxide is absorbed and stored within timber products than is emitted during its harvesting process, manufacturing and transportation combined.

In fact, when used instead of other building materials, a single cubic metre of timber will save around 0.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. With such strong green credentials, it’s clear to see why so many organisations are embracing timber. Not only does the material provide strength and aesthetic beauty, but offers an effective solution in battling climate change. In fact, boroughs like Hackney in East London are now demanding a ‘timber first’ policy when it comes to building specifications. Similarly, the French government recently announced new sustainability legislation to help make the country carbon-neutral by 2050. The new law, which becomes enforceable in 2022, will mandate that all new public buildings in France are built from at least 50% timber, or other natural materials.

In his speech on the 30th June 2020, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson underlined his commitment to “build, build, build” as part of efforts to upgrade Britain’s infrastructure network. Furthermore, Mr Johnson identified the nation’s existing skills gap and the need to close it in order to better fuel a full economic recovery across the country. As such, the Prime Minister’s ‘New Deal’ announcement has clearly put jobs and infrastructure at the centre of the government’s economic growth strategy.

This impactful speech reaffirmed the government’s election commitments to build more homes and reinvest in the NHS. Additionally, with his closing statement, Mr Johnson recommitted the government to its Net Zero targets and placed construction at the heart of this effort, commenting:

“To that end we will build build build. Build back better, build back greener, build back faster and to do that at the pace that this moment requires”.

There is every reason for climate strategy to be at the forefront of policymakers’ minds as they shape the stimulus needed to reboot the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, many economists rank green stimulus measures amongst the most beneficial for the nation, as well as being the best for the environment.

With a need to rebuild after the crisis, as well an opportunity to tackle unemployment and grow the economy, it will be critical for private capital to fund infrastructure investment across the nation and to be able to offer adequate insurance cover for the build process and beyond.

In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.

The target requires the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared with its previous target of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels. The UK has already reduced its emissions by 42%, whilst growing the economy by 72% and putting clean growth at the heart of its modern Industrial Strategy.

As well as appreciating the financial benefits involved in supporting sustainable projects, banks and insurers must begin to assess the future costs they’ll be liable to, should extreme weather and rising oceans become more common. Ultimately, these companies hold their own destiny, as well as their future profitability in their own hands. Therefore, as the UK and the rest of the world begins to recover from the shock of COVID-19, it’s possible that the next global shock could have much more catastrophic and irreversible implications.

The increased use of timber can only be a positive in that it provides for a better built environment for generations to come by pushing towards a net zero economy and allows for future proofing of projects throughout their lifecycle.

From enabling a circular economy, to contributing over £8.5 billion to the financial system and subsequent employment opportunities, through to providing a carbon sink and enhanced health and wellbeing benefits and beyond, timber needs to be at the heart of construction. The increased use of timber in construction will help improve the way we live, beyond the current dilemmas of the pandemic, a recovering economy and the looming climate crisis.

Timber offers a timeless, stable solution for construction. From its earliest use in cathedrals, churches, manor houses, barns and farms and family dwellings to the more immediate future where short-life parts of a building can be changed. A timber construction’s total lifespan can be extended, to suit the flexible way we will be living in the future. In fact, many of the schemes that have been shortlisted in the Home of 2030 Government initiative, are centred around the use of timber, as a sustainable, scalable, carbon neutral material that is adaptable for offsite and modern methods of construction and that it is a flexible, re-usable material.

In addition to using timber as part of the structure of a building, it can also provide benefits beyond its structural integrity, as timber offers improved thermal insulation and acoustic performance. In particular the thermal performance of any building is key at present, as achieving net zero needs to take into account the energy usage required to heat and cool buildings. The Government’s Future Homes consultation launched in October 2019 outlined changes to Parts F and L of the Building Regulations, which govern energy efficiency and ventilation, meaning that thermal performance requirements are likely to become increasingly tighter.

With this increasing focus on efficiency, the use of timber frame construction can offer external walls with high thermal insulation for a relatively slender thickness. More recently, the timber-frame industry has moved from using 90mm to 140mm external wall studs. This increase provides additional space for installing insulation. In addition, the use of reflective breather membranes are used to effectively block infrared radiation, which enhances the thermal performance of the airspace, and consequently increases the overall U-value of the construction.

Well-insulated, airtight timber frame buildings work well in summer, keeping daytime heat out – an important consideration in a country that is experiencing year-on-year temperature increases. Traditional masonry buildings have a thermal mass which sees them absorb heat through the daytime. On the contrary, lightweight timber structures do no absorb heat well. This means that timber buildings don’t contribute to the build-up of heat to the excessive and uncomfortable night-time temperatures many people experienced in 2020, with tropical nights on the rise with Britain experiencing 16 evenings above 20 degrees, as masonry walls released their stored-up daytime heat. In the winter months, timber frame buildings are quick to respond to heat. The high thermal mass properties of materials like concrete and bricks mean that a lot of energy is required to change their temperatures. Without this heavy energy absorbing internal structure to heat up first, occupants in timber frame buildings benefit from a fast heating response, while benefiting from low heating bills too.

Timber as a construction material goes beyond the structural provisions of mass timber, as it is adaptable and provides a quicker, quieter and safer construction for time and cost savings. Beyond its use timber can re-used and easily disposed of or can be  recycled into other streams such as pulp and paper, or even used as a fuel.

Using a truly sustainable material, offering high insulation values, quality construction and good air tightness, new timber frame buildings are well placed to meet the evolving needs of planet earth and its occupants.

There is clear evidence to show that climate change is happening!

Since the pre-industrial period, the average temperature of the Earth’s surface has risen by about 1°C. Similarly, 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century, with each of the last three decades hotter than the one that came before.

Although we’re all getting warmer, some areas have experienced the effects of this change more greatly than others. For example, the temperature rise is particularly noticeable when assessing the shrinkage of ice caps and ice sheets in the Arctic region.

In the UK, the problem is also worsening year-on-year. The average day between 2008 and 2017 was 0.8°C warmer than an average day between 1961 and 1990. Additionally, the top ten warmest years in British history have all occurred since 1990, with the nine warmest occurring since 2002.

Whilst we may struggle to notice this change on a day-to-day basis, the ramifications of a further increase to global temperature will affect everyday life. As the planet gets warmer, more ice melts, which leads to sea level rises and increases the likelihood of flooding in coastal areas. In fact, should sea levels rise a further six and a half feet, nearly 190 million people would be under direct threat of displacement.

Therefore, without serious intervention, it’s clear to see that the world is on course for an impending ecological, humanitarian and financial crisis, which will alter how it functions forever.