Science·What on Earth?

Wood highrises to shoot up thanks to new building codes

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the rising popularity of wood buildings, the future of oil stocks and why Canada will likely see climate migrants.

Also: Are oil stocks in the 'death-knell phase'?

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Wood highrises to shoot up thanks to new building codes
  • One business guru thinks we're seeing the 'death knell' of oil stocks
  • Does Canada have a 'moral and legal obligation' to allow climate migrants?

Wood highrises to shoot up thanks to new building codes

(George Brown College)

Tall towers have defined cities as "jungles" of concrete and glass. But what if we built highrises out of wood instead?

Proponents say that could have two benefits:

  • The wood stores carbon for the lifetime of the building, which (temporarily) prevents it from entering the atmosphere.

A five-storey residential building built with wood can store up to 180 kilograms of carbon per square metre — three times more than a high-density forest with the same footprint, according to a new study from U.S. and German researchers.

Right now, just 0.5 per cent of new buildings are constructed with timber. But if we pushed that up to 10 per cent, those buildings could store 10 million tonnes of carbon per year. And if 50 per cent of buildings were built with wood, they could store up to 700 million tonnes of carbon a year, the researchers estimate. 

Not only that, but building with timber would cut emissions from steel and cement manufacturing by half.

So why haven't we been doing it?

One problem is that the most common wood product used in modern construction until now — the two-by-four — doesn't have the strength or versatility needed for constructing tall buildings, said Anne Koven, director of the Mass Timber Institute, which is based at the University of Toronto.

But in the 1990s, researchers in Austria and Germany invented cross-laminated timber (CLT), which uses adhesives to bind smaller pieces of wood into sturdy, fire-resistant panels and beams. "It's an engineered wood product for building on the scale of cement and steel," Koven said.

Designers, engineers and architects, including Russell Acton of Acton Ostry Architects in Vancouver, saw that and similar new products as an opportunity. "It was kind of like, now that we have engineered wood and we have an environmental interest, why not explore mass timber to get it back in use?" Acton said.

There was also another barrier: the maximum height for most wood buildings allowed by building codes in Canada was six storeys. Until now.

Acton and his team got a special exemption to build Brock Commons Tallwood House, an 18-storey student residence at the University of British Columbia and the tallest wood building in the world when it opened in 2017.

Since then, some provinces — most recently Alberta — have changed their building codes to allow highrises of up to 12 storeys. When it's revised later this year, the federal building code will also allow that height.

Across Canada, there are plans to build more wood highrises, from 12-storey condo projects in Victoria and Esquimalt on Vancouver Island to 30-storey wood towers in Toronto proposed by Google as part of its Sidewalk Labs development.

Acton's firm is working on the Arbour, a 10-storey building slated for George Brown College in downtown Toronto (see photo above).

Despite the budding interest, Acton warns that builders haven't yet worked out the "most economical" configurations for towers made of wood. For example, Brock Commons in Vancouver cost about seven per cent more than a similar building of steel and concrete.

"Everybody's doing it for the first time," Acton said. "It's in its infancy."

Emily Chung

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The Big Picture: The fall of oil stocks

Sometimes, a moment of television can seem to crystallize a broader sentiment. Such was the case last Friday, shortly after U.S. oil titans Exxon and Chevron released their fourth-quarter earnings reports. Profits for both companies had dropped from the previous year. This prompted Jim Cramer, a former hedge fund manager and an influential and notoriously plain-spoken CNBC personality, to declare that oil stocks were "in the death knell phase." The quip seemed to catch the segment's anchor by surprise, but Cramer explained himself. "We're starting to see divestment all over the world. We're starting to see big pension funds say, 'Listen, we're not going to own them anymore.… The world has turned on [oil stocks]. It's actually happening kind of quickly." This came even before news arrived that fears surrounding the coronavirus had dented oil demand in China by three million barrels a day, or 20 per cent.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The unveiling of the Tesla Cybertruck in November and an ad for a battery-charged Hummer during Sunday's Super Bowl suggest that electric vehicles are moving beyond their unassuming, urban-friendly image to "eco-beasts." This may be a way to convince skeptical Americans between the coasts to consider buying an EV — or at least that's what this New York Times column argues.
  • Solar panels that work at night? Yes, someone's developing them. The scientific explanation of "nighttime photovoltaic power" would require significantly more space than we're allotted here, but this article helps make sense of it.

Does Canada have a 'moral and legal obligation' to allow climate migrants?

(Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

A landmark ruling by the United Nations that could pave the way for future climate migrants may force the Canadian government to rethink its conditions around refugees and asylum seekers.

On Jan. 20, the UN Human Rights Committee stated governments must now take into account the climate crisis when considering the deportation of asylum seekers

The non-binding UN ruling involves Ioane Teitiota, from the Pacific country of Kiribati, who brought a case against New Zealand in 2016 after authorities there denied his claim of asylum as a climate refugee.

The UN committee upheld New Zealand's decision to deport Teitiota, saying he did not face an immediate risk if returned. But committee expert Yuval Shany said "this ruling sets forth new standards that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims."

Currently, there are no specific provisions for people seeking asylum on the grounds of climate change under Canadian immigration and refugee law. 

Mitchell Goldberg, former president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said that if Canada wants to be able to "look itself in the mirror," the government will need to take urgent policy and legislative action in order to account for the "very threatening new reality" of forced migration as a result of climate change.

Elizabeth May, the former Green Party leader, said, "we are going to have climate refugees" and that it is incumbent on Canada to do something.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 17.2 million people worldwide had to leave their homes in 2019 because of disasters exacerbated by climate change.

Goldberg said that while the UN ruling was "very encouraging" and "long overdue," many countries, like Canada, the U.S. and those in the EU, will try and ignore it. It had been "notoriously hard" to update the UN's refugee convention, given that the "rich countries of the world" have been against any expansion and have tried to limit its provisions, Goldberg said.

In a statement to CBC News, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said the Canadian government actively monitors the implications of climate change on migration and displacement of people. 

"Climate change is one of the greatest global challenges of our time…. Developing countries, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, are the hardest hit," IRCC spokesperson Shannon Ker said. "In the case of people displaced due to a sudden onset weather event or a natural disaster, IRCC has in the past expedited applications already in the system, and has also extended temporary resident visas for those already in Canada."

However, IRCC did not state if the ruling would impact Canada's definition around what constitutes an asylum seeker.

Chiara Liguori, policy adviser for Amnesty International, said governments' tendency to resist redefining refugee definitions is a result in part of how difficult it is to identify climate change as a specific reason for displacement.

"The reasons why people move are interlinked, and determining this objectively is hard," Liguori said. "There is also an issue of political will."

But she said that the climate crisis will trigger more "human rights impacts on the lives of people," especially those living in developing countries.

May said an increase in climate migrants to Canada could be beneficial to rural areas that have experienced depopulation, and could provide a much-needed economic boost.

"It's not going to happen all at once, but is going to happen soon enough and governments — both federal and provincial — need to think about how we plan ahead and have adequate infrastructure to make this as positive as possible in unhappy circumstances."

Adam Jacobson

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty