There are high estimates of the potential climate change mitigation opportunity of using wood products. A significant part of those estimates depends on long-lived wood products in the construction sector replacing concrete, steel, and other non-renewable goods. Often the climate change mitigation benefits of this substitution are presented and quantified in the form of displacement factors. A displacement factor is numerically quantified as the reduction in emissions achieved per unit of wood used, representing the efficiency of biomass in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. The substitution benefit for a given wood use scenario is then represented as the estimated change in emissions from baseline in a study’s modelling framework. The purpose of this review is to identify and assess the central economic and technical assumptions underlying forest carbon accounting and life cycle assessments that use displacement factors or similar simple methods.
Four assumptions in the way displacement factors are employed are analyzed: (1) changes in harvest or production rates will lead to a corresponding change in consumption of wood products, (2) wood building products are substitutable for concrete and steel, (3) the same mix of products could be produced from increased harvest rates, and (4) there are no market responses to increased wood use.
After outlining these assumptions, we conclude suggesting that many studies assessing forest management or products for climate change mitigation depend on a suite of assumptions that the literature either does not support or only partially supports. Therefore, we encourage the research community to develop a more sophisticated model of the building sectors and their products. In the meantime, recognizing these assumptions has allowed us to identify some structural, production, and policy-based changes to the construction industry that could help realize the climate change mitigation potential of wood products.