Comment: Darrington at the forefront of eco-responsible technology


By Julia Grace Sanders / For the herald

It’s now or never to limit global warming enough to keep the planet livable, according to a recent United Nations report. To avoid “unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals”, we must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Maximum Celsius, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Reaching this limit requires unprecedented development of carbon reduction technologies. On this point, scientists and economists around the world agree. But the paths to funding and scaling these rapid technological developments are less clear. For a potential solution, we can turn to the small logging town of Darrington.

Dwarfed by the white peaks of the North Cascades, Darrington offers a model for encouraging public investment in private climate technologies while supporting rural economies. The city sprouted in the 1890s thanks to the lumber industry. But changes in public forest management and an increase in habitat protection acreage have slowed production to a trickle. The once prosperous city now has a poverty rate of 20%, twice the state median.

Mayor Dan Rankin began looking for a way to revive Darrington’s economy after the Oso landslide devastated the town yet again in 2014. It was then that he discovered a technology called cross-laminated timber (CLT). The material significantly reduces the carbon footprint of new buildings by replacing concrete and structural steel building materials, which release large amounts of carbon dioxide during production. CLT, on the contrary, sequesters carbon during the photosynthesis of a tree. This carbon remains locked in the floors and walls of CLT buildings as long as the structures are standing. Even after demolition, CLT emits 50 to 80% less than traditional building materials.

It’s a relatively simple technology: basically wood chips glued together. It is made by placing strong pieces of wood crosswise and securing them with a vacuum or hydraulic press. Europe has embraced CLT manufacturing since the 1990s, but the technology is still relatively underdeveloped in the United States

Rankin partnered with Snohomish County and environmental nonprofit Forterra to create the Darrington Wood Innovation Center. The 94-acre campus will house a small European-grade sawmill and remanufacturing furnace, a CLT plant, and a modular housing manufacturing plant.

It took Rankin nearly a decade to forge the partnerships necessary to make the center a reality.

“When something is new and something is innovative, it’s kind of scary for the industry,” he said.

The Darrington Timber Innovation Center is a model of how the public sector can reduce the risks associated with investing in climate-friendly technologies. On the public side, the project received county, state, and federal funding of approximately $9.4 million. Forterra investors have invested $12 million for the center’s buildings, which CLT’s private makers will lease.

This project sets the stage for a nascent cross-laminated timber market to mature in the United States. More broadly, it demonstrates how the public sector can foster the technological solutions needed to mitigate climate change. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement and other key international agreements all highlight public-private partnerships as a potential avenue for financing the development of climate technologies.

The Darrington Timber Innovation Center could create more than 120 new jobs while supporting local businesses and scaling up CLT production in the United States. Perhaps more importantly, this process is repeatable.

“The idea was to make the model reproducible,” Rankin said.

Global average temperatures have already warmed by around 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit – about 1 degree Celsius – since pre-industrial times. The public-private partnership showcased at Darrington can and should be applied in cities across the country to play a meaningful role in meeting the 1.5°C limit.

Julia-Grace Sanders is a former Herald reporter and is currently an environmental fellow at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.


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