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Christian Friis Bach

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The Executive Secretary's Blog

What can we learn from Pippi Longstocking?

My parents had an old summerhouse in Denmark that we have now taken over. It was built in 1946 of wood like most Danish summerhouses. It is still standing and habitable after 70 years.

Wooden houses, like this summerhouse, often conjure up nostalgic images for us, like the Swedish house of Pippi Longstocking from Astrid Lindgren’s book, picturesque old log cabins in the wilderness of North America,  or the “izbushkas,” wooden huts that often play a role in Slavic fairy tales.

However, using wood for building houses is not something of the past. It is increasingly the future. Wood is a renewable, recyclable and a natural raw material that can be used to create modern and comfortable living spaces. At the same time, it can play a significant role in the transition to an inclusive green economy, supporting livelihoods and reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Increased use of wood can help us tackle climate change!

Some worry that using wood products will result in diminishing forests. However, in the vast majority of the developed world, wood is a product of sustainably managed forests. In Europe, only 64 per cent of the annual increment of biomass from our managed forests is harvested, which means that 36 per cent of the additional annual biomass stays in our growing forests. Compared to other construction materials, it has a much smaller carbon footprint. The greenhouse gas emissions to produce one tonne of sawnwood are about 13 per cent of what is required for the same weight of concrete and less than 5 per cent of what is required for the same weight of steel.

These contributions that wood construction can make to reducing greenhouse gasses should not be underestimated, especially since in many countries the population is growing and the demand for affordable housing is increasing. Furthermore, the construction time of buildings made of wood can be relatively short (a house of cross-laminated timber can be constructed in days), buildings are lighter and consequently require smaller foundations; they have excellent seismic performance and –  contrary to what many people might think – good fire resistance.

Many countries are trying to accommodate rapidly increasing numbers of migrants and often have to resort to containers or tents to house them but there are more welcoming alternatives. Last December, the German Federal State of Rhineland-Palatinate inaugurated its first modular wood construction for 192 refugees in Hahn.  It took only three months from inception to completion and was all done with local providers. Although these are being built to address emergency situations, they can easily be converted to permanent apartments or student accommodation. Another nice example of the use of wood can be found right next to my office here in Geneva. While the Geneva Opera house is undergoing an extensive two-and-a-half-year renovation, performances continue in a temporary opera house built completely out of wood from a recycled structure that was used previously in Paris, when the Comédie Française underwent renovations.

Paris is also the location where all States agreed that the world’s temperature must not increase more than 2°C. We are now in the first year of the Paris Agreement and the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is taking place this week in Marrakech, Morocco. It will be crucial to find holistic approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in every aspect of our lives. Use of renewable materials such as wood will help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals on sustainable land management: building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation.

The UNECE works together with architects, city planners, researchers and governments by facilitating the exchange of ideas on how to further promote wood as a building material. A recent UNECE-FAO study provides an overview of policies, programmes and initiatives that enhance the use of wood in buildings.   

Not every building can or will be built entirely out of wood, but there is great potential to increase the use of wood. In Europe only eight to ten per cent of residential constructions are made out of wood; in the United States and Canada it is around 90 per cent, especially in suburban areas. In addition, more and more multi-storey buildings in urban areas are constructed using wood. The University of British Columbia in Vancouver will open a student residence next year that will be the world’s tallest wooden building at 18 storeys. Last year, FAO organised an international wood design competition and some amazing concepts were submitted showing how wood construction can be as modern and futuristic as any other material. Have a look at the models of the prize winners!  

Using wood for building houses is definitely not something from the past or children’s literature. It can be and should be a key part of our sustainable future. We can learn a great deal from Pippi Longstocking.


If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.