North American Wood Product Life Cycle Assessment Coordination Group- Facilitator

The US and Canada lead the world in timber harvested for industrial products.  These logs are manufactured into a wide variety of forest products that are used in structural and non-structural components of buildings, railroad ties, pallets, telephone poles, furniture and all kinds of paper, packaging, and cellulose fiber. Wood is renewable, requires relatively little energy to manufacture and provides important economic value to rural areas.  In addition, when managed sustainably, it provides critical natural co-benefits such as clean water, flood control, and wildlife habitat.  Quantifying these positive and negative impacts across a value chain is of great interest to manufacturers, customers, investors, employees, government, and the public alike.

Life cycle assessment is a methodology that assesses the environmental impacts of a product or service across its lifetime, from raw material extraction to manufacturing, transportation, use, and end-of-life.  Its methodology is principally governed by the ISO 14040 series standards, with various other ISO standards addressing specific applications in reporting LCA, including ISO 21930 for Sustainability in Building Construction and ISO 14025- Environmental Labels and Declarations- for creating Product Category Rules (PCRs) that govern the creation of EPDs (see below).  The Forest Sector uses LCA for three principle needs:

Environmental Product Declarations- LCAS are needed for the creation of Environmental Product Declarations, which are the way to communicate life cycle information on a product by product basis.  EPDs are now accepted in green building standards, such as LEED and Green Globes, and are increasingly being requested by wood product customers.

Improving Production/Manufacturing/Innovation- LCAs can be an important tool when developing new products or improving product manufacturing because it can highlight parts of the manufacturing process that have the biggest environmental impact and help model ways to improve.

Informing Policy- Often debates arise as to what is the best material to use to reduce specific environmental impacts.  Because of its carbon storage and relatively little energy requirements, LCAs on wood products have been favorable relative to alternate materials such as concrete and in construction, especially in reducing GHG emissions.

However, LCA methodology is a mass-balance equation and therefore has difficulty dealing with the dynamic nature of a forest, with trees and habitat changing over space and time.  Furthermore, LCA is ultimately an accounting framework, dictated by the assumptions made in the study related to scope and boundaries.  These lead to wildly differing results and cause confusion especially when LCAs are used in policy discussions.

While life cycle assessment is a growing field with many practitioners, the nuances associated with a forest product LCA make it difficult to conduct without knowledge of forest product manufacturing, including the conversions associated with moisture content, board feet from logs versus lumber, utilization ratios etc.…  An understanding of the renewability of fiber and forest dynamics is also needed to discuss LCA methodological limitations rationally and informatively and provide alternative complementary measures. These uncertainties and complexities point to a need for coordination between stakeholders and scientists. 

I facilitate a group of about 30 wood product LCA experts, representing academia, government agencies, industry associations, and consultants in both the U.S. and Canada.  We have quarterly calls and work to continuously improve on the following goals:

  1. Efficient and timely life cycle inventory data to create industry representative EPDs

  2. Effectively educating stakeholders, including builders, architectures, standards organizations, and policy makers, about wood product LCAs and work to continuously improve transparency in forestry and manufacturing metrics.  

  3. Generating new LCAs for new products or based on new LCI data- identifying the most relevant questions and facilitating collaboration.

 

Through this role I help connect wood LCA experts to answer specific questions.  For example, in the spring of 2020 I helped coordinate the Carbon Leadership Forum Wood Carbon Seminars, an 8-week webinar series that invited wood experts to answer the building industry’s common and critical questions about wood carbon.  Over 400 people registered to receive access to the webinars, with 100-200 people attending each session.