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ENVIRONMENT

IN PICTURES: In Scandinavia, wooden buildings reach new heights

A sandy-coloured tower glints in the sunlight and dominates the skyline of the Swedish town of Skellefteå as Scandinavia harnesses its wood resources to lead a global trend towards erecting eco-friendly high-rises.

IN PICTURES: In Scandinavia, wooden buildings reach new heights
The Sara culture house, one of the world's tallest wooden buildings made of 20 floors, is pictured on February 22, 2022, in Skelleftea, in Vasterbotten county, north-eastern Sweden. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

The Sara Cultural Centre is one of the world’s tallest timber buildings, made primarily from spruce and towering 75 metres (246 feet) over rows of snow-dusted houses and surrounding forest.

The 20-storey timber structure, which houses a hotel, a library, an exhibition hall and theatre stages, opened at the end of 2021 in the northern town of 35,000 people.

Forests cover much of Sweden’s northern regions, most of it spruce, and building timber homes is a longstanding tradition.

Swedish architects now want to spearhead a revolution and steer the industry towards more sustainable construction methods as large wooden buildings sprout up in Sweden and neighbouring Nordic nations thanks to advancing industry techniques.

“The pillars together with the beams, the interaction with the steel and wood, that is what carries the 20 storeys of the hotel,” Therese Kreisel, a Skellefteå urban planning official, tells AFP during a tour of the cultural centre.

A general view shows the Sara culture house, one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings, on February 22, 2022, in Skellefteå, in Vasterbotten County, north-eastern Sweden.(Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

Even the lift shafts are made entirely of wood. “There is no plaster, no seal, no isolation on the wood,” she says, adding that this “is unique when it comes to a 20-storey building”.

Building materials go green

The main advantage of working with wood is that it is more environmentally friendly, proponents say.

Cement — used to make concrete — and steel, two of the most common construction materials, are among the most polluting industries because they emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

But wood emits little CO2 during its production and retains the carbon absorbed by the tree even when it is cut and used in a building structure.

It is also lighter in weight, requiring less of a foundation.

The Sara culture house, one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings with its 20 floors (Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

According to the UN’s IPCC climate panel, wood as a construction material can be up to 30 times less carbon intensive than concrete, and hundreds or even thousands times less than steel.

Global efforts to cut emissions have sparked an upswing in interest for timber structures, according to Jessica Becker, the coordinator of Trästad (City of Wood), an organisation lobbying for more timber construction.

Skellefteå’s tower “showcases that is it possible to build this high and complex in timber”, says Robert Schmitz, one of the project’s two architects.

The spa of the Wood Hotel, located in the 20th floor of the Sara culture house, one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings (Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

 “When you have this as a backdrop for discussions, you can always say, ‘We did this, so how can you say it’s not possible?’.”

Only an 85-metre tower recently erected in Brumunddal in neighbouring Norway and an 84-metre structure in Vienna are taller than the Sara Cultural Centre. 

A building under construction in the US city of Milwaukee and due to be completed soon is expected to clinch the title of the world’s tallest, at a little more than 86 metres.

‘Stacked like Lego’

Building the cultural centre in spruce was “much more challenging” but “has also opened doors to really think in new ways”, explains Schmitz’s co-architect Oskar Norelius.

For example, the hotel rooms were made as pre-fabricated modules that were then “stacked like Lego pieces on site”, he says. The building has won several wood architecture prizes.

In Sweden, a new generation of wooden buildings pushes the boundaries of tradition. (Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

Anders Berensson, another Stockholm architect whose material of choice is wood, says timber has many advantages.

“If you missed something in the cutting you just take the knife and the saw and sort of adjust it on site. So it’s both high tech and low tech at the same time”, he says.

In Stockholm, an apartment complex made of wood, called Cederhusen and featuring distinctive yellow and red cedar shingles on the facade, is in the final stages of completion.

It has already been named the Construction of the Year by Swedish construction industry magazine Byggindustrin.

(Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

“I think we can see things shifting in just the past few years actually,” says Becker.

“We are seeing a huge change right now, it’s kind of the tipping point. And I’m hoping that other countries are going to catch on, we see examples even in England and Canada and other parts of the world.”

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Norway’s future CO2 cemetery takes shape

On the shores of an island off Norway's North Sea coast, engineers are building a burial ground for unwanted greenhouse gas.

Norway's future CO2 cemetery takes shape

The future terminal is to pump tonnes of liquefied carbon dioxide captured from the top of factory chimneys across Europe into cavities deep below the seabed.

The project in the western municipality of Oygarden aims to prevent the gas from entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

It “is the world’s first open-access transport and storage infrastructure, allowing any emitter that has captured his CO2 emissions to deliver that CO2 for safe handling, transport and then permanent storage,” project manager Sverre Overa told AFP.

As the planet struggles to meet its climate targets, some climate experts see the technique, called carbon capture and storage, or CCS, as a means to partially reduce emissions from fossil-fuel-based industries.

Norway is the biggest hydrocarbon producer in Western Europe, but it also boasts the best CO2 storage prospects on the continent, especially in its depleted North Sea oil fields.

READ ALSO: ‘A code red’: Will Europeans change their habits after climate crisis ‘reality check’?

The government has financed 80 percent of the infrastructure, putting €1.7 billion ($1.7 billion) on the table as part of a wider state plan to
develop the technology.

A cement factory and a waste-to-energy plant in the Oslo region are set to send their CO2 to the site.

But the most original feature of the project is on the commercial side: inviting foreign firms to send their CO2 pollution to be buried out of harm’s way.

Pipeline plans

Using CCS to curb carbon pollution is not a new idea, but despite generous subsidies, the technology has never taken off, mainly because it is so costly.

One of the world’s largest carbon capture facilities, at the Petra Nova coal-fired plant in Texas, was mothballed in 2020 because it was not
economical.

There are only a couple of dozen operational CCS projects around the world, according to the industry-run Global CCS Institute.

But the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with Paris Agreement goals and a massive influx of government subsidies have breathed new life into the technology.

Energy giants Equinor, TotalEnergies and Shell have set up a partnership — dubbed Northern Lights — which will be the world’s first cross-border CO2 transport and storage service at its scheduled launch in 2024.

A pipeline will inject the liquefied CO2 into geological pockets 2,600 metres below the ocean floor, and the idea is that it will remain there for
good.

READ ALSO: OECD criticises Norway’s climate efforts

On Monday, the Northern Lights partners announced a first cross-border commercial agreement.

From 2025, it is to ensure 800,000 tonnes of CO2 are captured each year at a plant in the Netherlands owned by Norwegian fertiliser manufacturer Yara, then shipped to Oygarden and stored there.

On Tuesday, two energy firms — Norway’s oil and gas giant Equinor and Germany’s Wintershall Dea — announced a project to take carbon dioxide captured in Germany to the Norwegian offshore storage site.

If confirmed, the partnership between Equinor and Wintershall Dea could involve building a 900-kilometre (560-mile) pipeline connecting a CO2 collection facility in northern Germany with storage sites in Norway by 2032.

A similar project with Belgium is already in the works.

On the icy shores of the North Sea, a “graveyard” under construction is raising the hopes of climate experts: soon, the site will house a — small — portion of the CO2 emitted by European industry, preventing it from ending up in the atmosphere. (Photo by Alexiane LEROUGE / AFP)

Not a ‘proper solution’ 

In its first phase, the Northern Lights scheme will be able to process 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 per year, then later between five and six million tonnes.

But that is just a tiny fraction of annual carbon emissions across Europe.

The European Union emitted 3.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2020, according to the European Environment Agency.

Many climate experts warn carbon capture is no silver bullet for the climate crisis.

Critics caution that CCS could prolong fossil fuel extraction just as the world is trying to turn toward clean and renewable energy.

READ ALSO: Carbon dioxide to be stored in Norway in ‘milestone’ deal

Greenpeace Norway’s Halvard Raavand said the campaign group had always opposed the practice.

“In the beginning, it was very easy to oppose all kinds of CCS (carbon capture and storage) and now because of the lack of climate action it’s of course a more difficult debate to be in,” he said.

“This money should instead be spent on developing (a) proper solution that we know (works) and that could reduce the electricity bills for regular people, such as insulating homes or solar panels”.

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