News

Trees, plants and soil could help cities cut their carbon footprints — but mainstreaming their use requires better data

Researchers call for international product standards for green infrastructure
Tree on lawn
Photo: Mikko Raskinen/Aalto University

Cities and nations around the globe are shooting for carbon neutrality, with some experts already talking about the need to ultimately reach carbon negativity. In construction, carbon footprint declarations are used to ease product selection for low carbon building, but these standards don’t yet exist for green elements like soil, bushes and plants. A new study led by Aalto University is the first to map out how green infrastructure can be a resource for cities on the path to carbon neutrality.

The study, done in collaboration with the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and the University of Helsinki, charted out the lifecycle phases of plants, soils and mulches to determine the basic considerations needed to create standards for products commonly used in green urban spaces.

‘Green infrastructure is a building block of cities, yet its products haven’t yet been systematically assessed for their carbon storage potential. We’re now starting to better understand the great importance of these nature-based solutions. Standards for these commonly used products would help us not only better plan our cities, but also help us reach carbon neutrality,’ says Matti Kuittinen, an adjunct professor at Aalto University.

In their study, the team identified the existing carbon footprint standards, widely used in the construction industry, that would need development if applied to green infrastructure. To do so, they compared the flows of carbon in soils, mulches and plants over their lifespans. The team then tried to translate these carbon flows into the standardised reporting format used for conventional building products.

‘One of the main challenges in assessing the carbon storage potential of plants is that the product you buy changes over time. If you install 50 bricks in a building and remove them in a decade, you still have 50 bricks. If you plant 20 seedlings, in ten years’ time you might have 30 large bushes thanks to growth and spread,’ explains Kuittinen.

The recommendations made in the study provide a concrete basis for developing global and regional — for example, European Union — standards for green infrastructure. The aim is to ensure claims of carbon storage hold true, as well as eventually have a tool for landscape designers to help plan new areas or refurbishing existing urban spaces.

The recommendations are particularly relevant for countries and regions like the Nordics, where nature has been traditionally integrated into urban landscapes. However, they can also help other areas meet their carbon targets. 

‘Cities need to take all kinds of actions to reach carbon neutrality. The benefit of green infrastructure is that once we know its carbon footprint, it doesn’t require new, expensive technology; it’s a simple, wide-reaching solution that can make real impact. This is an area that needs real attention from decision-makers in the European Union and elsewhere,’ says Kuittinen.

Researchers at Aalto University, together with consortium partners of the Co-Carbon project, are currently starting field tests to determine the exact carbon sequestration potential of plants at various stages of growth. While the carbon storage potential of trees is relatively well-known, the study is set to be the first to focus on plants and bushes, elements commonly used in urban landscaping. At Luke, researchers are developing a tool to model the changes in carbon storage of plants and soil at regional level due to land use changes. Such a tool could help planners target and maintain existing carbon storage in plants and soil.

The open-access study is published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.

More information

Dr. Matti Kuittinen
Adjunct Professor
Aalto University
[email protected]
+358505947990

Dr. Eeva-Maria Tuhkanen
Research scientist
Natural Resources Institute Finland
[email protected]
+358295326595

  • Published:
  • Updated:
Share
URL copied!

Read more news

Ligniinillä käsitelty tuoli
Press releases, Research & Art Published:

Bio-based coating for wood outperforms traditional synthetic options

Researchers turn a non-toxic residue into wood coating that resists abrasion-, stain-, and sunlight.
Hey GUI is a chatbot that can be used to find images or textual information about apps and their user interfaces using natural language conversations.
Press releases, Research & Art Published:

New chatbot can explain apps and show you how they access hardware or data

Hey GUI helps you find information on apps and their user interfaces with a simple conversation rather than complex tools or code.
Kuva: Aki-Pekka_Sinikoski.
Press releases Published:

Companies are shifting from crisis management to new growth – challenges include shortage of experts and the aftermath of a digital leap

There are bottlenecks on the road to emerging growth, and accelerated digitalisation isn't making things easier. When an organisation moves from the office to Teams, something gets left behind.
Northern Dimension Newsflash 2/2021 is out
Press releases, Research & Art Published:

Northern Dimension Newsflash 2/2021 is out

In this newsletter, you can read about the how the Northern Dimension Institute is currently mapping synergies in regional cooperation in the ND area, as well as about the interesting activities carried out in cooperation with the ND Partnerships in the fields of environment, transport and logistics, health and social well-being, and culture.