Increase the use of biobased materials in construction to reduce climate change

Diego Peñaloza has used system analysis tool LCA and several "what if"-scenarios to study the effects that increasing the use of biobased materials would have in the construction sector.
His thesis validate the common conception that biobased materials help climate change mitigation - but also that we need to use all mitigation strategies available to us in combination. It is all about reducing the impact, no matter the source.

What is the topic of your Doctoral Thesis?

I’m trying to understand the effects that increasing the use of biobased materials would have in the construction sector, more specifically concerning climate impact mitigation. For this, I use the systems analysis tool “Life Cycle Assessment” (LCA). LCA can be used to estimate the environmental impacts (climate change in my research) of a product or service through its whole life cycle. I also explore the effects on the whole Swedish building stock. I do all this by calculating the climate impact to several “what if” scenarios where more biobased materials in construction works are used, under different possible methodologies.

Why did you choose this topic?

I have been a fan of LCA since I learned about it in my masters. I did an LCA for my MSc thesis and then thought that if the opportunity comes, I would be open to a PhD where I would use the method. The opportunity came where I could apply it to construction works and biobased materials, and I was more than happy to take it.

What are the most important results?

I think two of my conclusions are very interesting to the general public. The first one is that in almost all the scenarios I explored, an increased use of biobased materials in construction results in lower impact on climate change. The second one is that from my last paper, where I found that only by implementing this (increased use of biobased materials) and other mitigation strategies (for example increasing the use of low-impact concrete) simultaneously, can the Swedish construction sector obtain the maximum impact reduction possible. These strategies are not exclusive, they are available and there is room for all of them. In other words, it is not as simple as a wood vs concrete issue, it is more like clean vs dirty.

Did you come across something unexpected during your thesis research?

Not really. But what I can say is that in the end my thesis looks very different to what I was expecting. I had to use methods and data that I didn’t even know existed before I started. Only a couple of years into my PhD I realized how important these were and that I really needed to do things like this if I wanted to go somewhere meaningful.

Who will benefit from your results?

I think that decision-makers in the construction sector will find my results interesting, as they validate the common conception that biobased materials are good for climate change mitigation. However, they also deliver a message that needs to be heard; we need all the mitigation strategies we can get, and biobased materials are not the only ones that can deliver. It is all about reducing the impact, no matter the source. I also think that LCA practitioners may benefit from my results concerning methodology, as LCA of biobased products is more complex than most think because of the connection with the forests, which are important sinks for the carbon natural cycle.

What will you do next?

I am an industrial PhD student, but I have been working 50% with KTH for the last couple of years. Now I will just go back 100% to my main employer, RISE – Research Institutes of Sweden. I have a lot of very interesting projects waiting for me there. Mostly concerning high-rise timber buildings, valorization of biomass and social LCA. I also have a personal interest in developing the LCA discipline in Latin America and Colombia, where I come from. I hope (more like dream) I can do this sometime in the future.

Diego Peñaloza defended his PhD thesis The role of biobased building materials in the climate impacts of construction - Effects of increased biobased material use in the Swedish building sector in June 2017 within the research area Civil and Architectural Engineering with specialization in Building Materials.

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