We can’t overlook the role that Maine’s northern forest plays in the fight against climate change. Trees pull carbon gas out of the air and store it in the form of wood. As long as the trees are standing, the carbon will not float in the atmosphere, trapping heat and warming the planet.

But that’s only half the story. A new study published in the journal Energy Economics has found that engineered wood products can be used to substitute for building materials like steel beams and cement, saving money while introducing far fewer greenhouse gases into the environment. And by turning trees into durable products, the carbon in them is sequestered for the long term.

Finding new uses for Maine’s forest products has been the focus of research for decades. This study makes clear that it’s no longer a matter of scholarly inquiry: The future is now.

The study’s authors found that lumber production creates 20 percent less carbon emissions than the production of fabricated metal products; 50 percent less than the production of iron and steel; and 25 percent less than the production of cement. And shifting to wood products would save money, lowering the cost of responding to climate change.

And other researchers have found that new wood-based construction products outperform the more familiar products they would replace and are already in use around the world. Cross-laminated timber, which is made by gluing together layers of sawed lumber, is as strong as steel and has been used in the construction of tall buildings in Canada, Japan, China, Finland and Sweden. Wood fiber insulation is in wide use in Europe. An investor has moved into the shuttered Madison paper mill to manufacture that kind of insulation here.

The southern Maine development community should jump on this opportunity to do something positive for the environment as well as the state’s economy. The building boom in the Portland area offers a unique opportunity to jump-start a new industry in the rest of the state. A world-class office building or hotel made from homegrown green materials would be the perfect showcase for what Maine’s forest products industry has to offer a world that’s trying to fight climate change.

It would also provide a way to share some of the economic benefits of the booming financial and hospitality industries in the southern part of the state with the workers of northern and central Maine who have been suffering from the decline of the paper industry.

Maine’s vast forest is already playing an important role in combating climate change, slowing global warming by serving as a living carbon sink. Conversion to construction materials made from sustainably harvested timber would help the state make an even bigger contribution. This is an area where Maine should lead.

 


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