In TIME’s recent article published on June 2 (Wildfires Are Getting Worse, So Why Is the U.S. Still Building Homes With Wood?), reporter Alana Samuels makes a bizarre case for building houses out of concrete and steel instead of wood. Rather than exploring the carbon footprint and climate consequences of using more man-made, energy-intensive building materials, Samuels saves her scrutiny entirely for wood -- a natural, renewable, biodegradable building material, grown in abundance in the United States. The resulting story is an unchecked talking points memo on the “environmental benefits” of two of the most fossil fuel intensive materials in building and construction.
A quick Google search would have provided ample documentation that cement, the primary ingredient in concrete, is the third largest industrial emitter of CO2, responsible for around 7 percent of global emissions. Steel production is responsible for 7 to 9 percent of direct emissions from fossil fuels globally. Whereas, multiple studies – including by Yale and the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change – have found using more wood and less concrete and steel would reduce global carbon emissions. These points go completely unexplored.
In the very last paragraph, Samuels points out that a severe wildfire will burn any building, regardless of its material. Perhaps that’s where she should have started. We need to talk about solutions for wildfire mitigation using modern forestry practices – that is a conversation worth having.
Instead, Samuels attempts to disprove the fact that wood is renewable, while glazing over the fact that steel and concrete are not. Sustainably managed forests and wood products are capturing and storing immense amounts of carbon -- a point that the article briefly touches but quickly disregards. By using wood in buildings, carbon currently stored in forests that is vulnerable to fires and other disturbances can be transferred into our built environment and stored reliably for many decades. In the U.S., those lands are then replanted with a new, healthy generation of growing trees. This increases the sink capacity of forests and their associated wood products, while reducing emissions associated with urban development.
The U.S. Forest Service’s own data shows that twice as much wood is grown as harvested each year in the United States. Perhaps the author was unaware of how modern, sustainable forestry practices are keeping our forest cover intact and setting the U.S. apart from other areas of the world where dangerous deforestation is occurring? If asked, we would have been happy to shed some light on how and why the U.S. is a global leader in sustainable forestry.
The reporter’s flawed premise may be the result of a flawed process. We were contacted by Samuels on the afternoon of May 5 with an end-of-day deadline for a story about the price of building materials, many of which have reached record prices during the pandemic-fueled demand. We scrambled to provide accurate data and information within a few hours of the request, and we took time to answer questions about complicated government data. When the article posted more than a month later, it was not about the challenges of supply and demand in a global pandemic, but a strange attempt to blame the worst impacts of severe wildfire on wood. Referred to as “industry spokespersons” rather than titled professionals, the article makes it was clear that we were not afforded the same time, transparency, or respect as the reporter’s other sources.
In the face of a changing climate, the stakes couldn’t be higher. We should be exploring how to mitigate the impacts of climate change, support forest resilience, and reduce the risk and worst impacts of severe wildfire. Thoughtful people in research, academia and Congress are doing just that, as are dedicated environmental journalists writing for publications around the country. We welcome tough questions, but we must insist on being given a fair shake. Sometimes, our implicit biases are right there in black and white – this is one of those times. After an objective review of this piece, we hope you will revisit these important topics with a renewed commitment to objectivity, impartiality, and critical thinking.
American Wood Council
National Alliance of Forest Owners