Buildings as a global carbon sink

Abstract

The anticipated growth and urbanization of the global population over the next several decades will create a vast demand for the construction of new housing, commercial buildings and accompanying infrastructure. The production of cement, steel and other building materials associated with this wave of construction will become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Might it be possible to transform this potential threat to the global climate system into a powerful means to mitigate climate change? To answer this provocative question, we explore the potential of mid-rise urban buildings designed with engineered timber to provide long-term storage of carbon and to avoid the carbon-intensive production of mineral-based construction materials.

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Fig. 1: Processes responsible for formation, depletion and potential replenishment of land carbon pool and changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations over time.
Fig. 2: Physical dimensions, carbon emissions and carbon storage capacity of 1 t of cement, steel and timber materials.
Fig. 3: Cumulative carbon emissions from manufacturing construction materials needed to construct buildings for new urban dwellers in 2020–2050.
Fig. 4: Comparison of projected wood demand needed for construction and wood supply available from the world forests.

Data availability

All data analysed in this study are included in its supplementary information files.

Code availability

The mathematical algorithm used in this study is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We thank K. Seto, C. Oliver, R. Miller, D. Sprinz, R. Lundberg and E. Lundberg for reading and commenting on the manuscript. We are grateful for discussions and suggestions to our approach to S. Running, V. Brovkin, L. Boysen, J. Pongratz, T. Rinaudo and A. Tofu. We thank M. Wodinski for help with graphic design. The research of G.C. was supported by the German Science Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, CH 413/7). A.O. and A.R. are grateful for support from the Hines Fund for Advanced Sustainability Research in Architecture at Yale University School of Architecture. C.P.O.R. acknowledges funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF, grant no. 01LS1201A1). K.V. acknowledges funding from The International Climate Initiative (IKI: www.international-climate-initiative.com) and the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) which supports the IKI on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag. Z.L. acknowledges funding from Qiushi Foundation, the Resnick Sustainability Institute at California Institute of Technology and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71874097, 41921005).

Author information

G.C., A.O. and H.J.S. designed the study. A.O. and A.R. provided building typologies and associated data. C.P.O.R. and G.C. assessed the timber amounts available from the world’s forests. G.C. developed methods for estimating carbon emissions and storage at the global scale. B.K.R. and T.E.G. provided expertise for steel materials and embodied energy calculations. Z.L. provided expertise for cement and concrete and respective data. K.V. supplied expertise on political, social and cultural implications of the transition. All authors contributed to discussing the results and writing the manuscript.

Correspondence to Galina Churkina.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1

Primary structures designed for typical, mid-rise residential and commercial building morphologies.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Difference between absolute net annual increment (NAI) and wood removals for the non-protected forest area of sixty-five FAO countries/regions for 1990–2010.

The bars indicate how much newly grown wood (NAI) is available after subtracting wood removals for sixty-five countries/regions grouped by the sign of this difference. Black bars indicate that the increment is larger than the wood removals. Grey bars indicate that the removals are larger than the increment. Error bars indicate the range induced by using a minimum and maximum wood density of 400 and 900 kg m–3 respectively when calculating the carbon content.

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Supplementary Methods, Tables 1–10 and references.

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Churkina, G., Organschi, A., Reyer, C.P.O. et al. Buildings as a global carbon sink. Nat Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0462-4

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