SFI Conference: Bioenergy and Forest Certification

The second morning of the SFI conference began with a discussion about “Advancing Sustainability in the Bioenergy Sector.” The question addressed by the panelists is how to meet growing demand for biomass feedstock, like wood pellets, while ensuring good forestry.

Both panelists highlighted the growing international demand for biomass feedstock and the challenge of meeting trade regulations and standards in Europe. Certification can be a part of meeting those regulations, demonstrating that wood used for renewable energy comes from a sustainably managed forest.

Panelists for the discussion were:

  • Dr. Charles Tattersall Smith, an SFI board member and former Dean of the school of Forestry at the University of Toronto.
  • Elizabeth Woodworth, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Enviva LP, a bioenergy company.

Dr. Smith

Discussing biomass in the context of reducing overall carbon emissions, Dr. Smith noted that the potential for using biomass is quite large. This is a global issue because there is significant trade in wood pellets for biomass around the world. This trade creates a challenge for suppliers who may face trade barriers in the EU and elsewhere, where they may require sources of biomass that are certified sustainable.

Smith highlighted a survey of those in the biomass sector asking about various efforts to ensure biomass is acquired responsibly. The results showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents said voluntary, certification systems were “essential to ensure sustainability.” Certification serves not only to ensure sustainability but also to help navigate a very complex system of regulations and markets. The results, Dr. Smith argued, demonstrate that certification systems can contribute to harmonization of these various demands and standards.

Elizabeth Woodworth

Enviva is a biomass energy company that produces wood pellets for distribution to Europe and elsewhere. In 2011, they became the world’s largest producer of solid biomass resources. Demand for biomass is driven by a range of regulations, including a mandate that Europe source 20 percent of its energy from renewables, like biomass. Biomass is a key part of this because it is relatively inexpensive to switch from coal to biomass, rather than deal with the infrastructure and other costs of transmission associated with intermittent sources of energy like wind and solar. As a result, demand for wood pellets is expected to increase fivefold in the next 10 years.

While Europe sees biomass from the United Sates as a good source of renewable energy, it is difficult to document sustainability without a certification.

The challenge in the United States is that regulations are uneven and inconsistent. States have different definitions of what counts as “renewable,” making the market more difficult to navigate.

She argued that SFI can help provide documentation for sustainable practices that meet the concerns about sustainable sources of bioenergy.

SFI Conference: Water Resources and Wildlife

Here’s a review of the session on forest management, water and wildlife, featuring Lynn Broaddus of the Johnson Foundation’s environmental programs and Christopher Smith of Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Lynn Broaddus

Focusing on the value of water for a variety of uses, Broaddus highlighted the need to bring a range of groups together when planning for water uses. Their effort brought together environmental NGOs, industry organizations, family farmers and others to ultimately produce a report called “Charting New Waters.”

She highlighted two principles that particularly applied to water and forestry.

Account for the full cost of water. Broaddus noted that the maze of federal subsides, costs for dams and other costs that were paid long ago have made it difficult to manage water and properly use it. Subsidies make it difficult to bring new conservation technologies to market because the subsidized price of water is so low. It also prevents water from being used in the most effective ways.

Create methods for freshwater ecosystem markets. Arguing that “the most important forest output may be water,” Broaddus argued that the value of clean water, mitigating flows and other costs and benefits from water management should be calculated. One negative impact she noted was from chemicals used to fight fires on the quality of water. She noted that Denver pays foresters to follow certain practices because it is cheaper than filtering the water. She also highlighted the work of The Freshwater Trust in Oregon.

The notion of valuing “ecosystem services” has been around for a while and hasn’t made much progress because there are a number of challenges. For example, one way to prevent the impact of firefighting chemicals reaching forest streams is to improve the health of forests by thinning and harvesting. Would advocates of valuing ecosystem services support this approach or would they say this would do more damage? It is virtually impossible to say and the answer often has less to do with economics than personal values. Ultimately the approach can hide the same value-laden arguments in economics talk. This is not to say it isn’t a useful discussion or worthy of consideration, but it hasn’t provided many clear answers.

The discussion of valuing water properly, however, is a critical area that needs to further be addressed and the Charting New Waters report sounds like an interesting addition to that discussion.

Christopher Smith

Smith highlighted the value of wetlands in the Western Boreal region of Canada. To emphasize that value, he noted that 50 percent of the land in Western Canada is wetland of a variety of types, from bogs to marshes. He noted that the” implications of resource development” in these areas is “relatively unknown.” Roads, however, are of particular concern for a variety of reasons.

Using a grant from SFI, Ducks Unlimited is now working with Weyerhaeuser, Louisiana Pacific and others on the “SFI Road Best management Practices Project.” The project is designed to identify areas of high, medium and low risk of impact on wetlands and test those classifications and see how they can be applied. They are now testing the results on quality of water and other issues and hope to have results next year.

The thing that stands out to me about this presentation (which was fairly technical) is the value that certification systems can provide in sharing best practices and new science. As new information is developed, certification systems can help spread the word about these approaches, giving certified foresters and incentive to use new science. The role of certification systems as a conduit for new science is under appreciated.

At the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Conference

I am attending the Sustainable Forestry Initiative conference in Milwaukee and will be blogging highlights today and tomorrow. Up first is a section titled “Wet and Wild – Responsible Forest Management Supports Water Resources and Wild.” Sessions of interest tomorrow will examine the future of the forest biomass energy sector and the value of forest certification systems for the future — a subject that will be of great interest to our readers.

To read more about the theme of the SFI conference, “the Future is Decided Now,” and the SFI program, you can visit their web page at www.sfiprogram.org.

How Can Certification Move Beyond a Niche Market – Guilt or Business?

A recent study from the London School of Economics and Political Science on “The Roles and Limits of Certification” says a great deal about the challenges faced by certification systems if they want to expand. The report notes that certification systems already have a share of the market, and the authors note “By the end of 2011, 7 percent of wild landings of fish for human consumption, 9 percent of the world’s productive forests, and 17 percent
of coffee produced globally were certified.” Moving beyond that, however, is the challenge.

Rather than achieving certification to improve profitability or market share, the study says the main reason certification programs have expanded is that early adopters have signed on despite the lack of business benefit. “Certification systems have expanded most rapidly when market-leading firms choose them as a means to incorporate improved practices into a supply chain,” write the authors, saying “certification systems set a ‘gold standard’ with incentives for those who take steps in that direction.” So, a few firms use certification to establish their position at the top of a particular market.

Certification, however, doesn’t lead to market success — it follows it. Well-established companies are willing to expend resources on certification because they believe in the cause. One of the authors, Dr. Kira Matus, told one news outlet that “One of the interesting things we found is that businesses who decide to certify their products for the most part don’t do it because they expect to secure a price premium in the market, but rather because they see certification as good overall business practice. Our findings indicate that certification is not necessarily about tapping consumers willing to pay a bit more and it may not actually result in a direct increase in profits in the short term.” The phrase “good overall business practice” can be read to indicate that participation in certification systems has more to do with the personal feelings of company managers than good business.

How successful can a certification system be when it relies primarily on warm feelings and guilt to the detriment of sound business practices? Not very. This is undoubtedly one reason forest certification systems have not spread beyond their current level.

Those advocating the expansion of forest certification have focused on two approaches.

First are those looking to impose certification using political means by regulating buying practices and other such rules. This recalls the saying “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion, still.” Companies required to meet regulations and bend to political pressure will work to find ways around the rules, undermining the effectiveness of those rules. This was one of the main findings of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, who argued institutions that impose rules are less effective at promoting responsible resource use than voluntary systems.

The alternative is to harmonize good business with the goals of the certification system. This allows the system to reach those who may not be true believers for the cause. It is the only system that can effectively reach one group the study says hasn’t been impacted by certification systems thus far — “certification has not demonstrated consistent capacity to affect the ‘bottom of the market’.” An economic incentive can bring these businesses on board. By way of contrast, those organizations are the most likely to find ways to game — regulatory attempts to impose rules on them.

As long as certification systems rely on pressure and guilt rather than sound economic benefit, it is unlikely they will effectively expand their reach, and the environmental and social benefits they hope to provide.

Are “Green” Building Standards Like LEED Based on Forest Science?

Four years ago, the green building coordinator for the Washington State Department of Ecology wrote a piece in support of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a standard for constructing “green” buildings. The coordinator argued that LEED was a superior system precisely because it rewarded builders for using FSC-certified wood. She claimed that FSC-certified forests “do not contribute to the destruction of old-growth forests.”

There is, however, one problem: no builder would use old-growth lumber to build. It is simply too expensive. I asked the building coordinator to give me a single example of a building made with old-growth wood. She declined. Politics, not science or reality, guided her support for FSC wood.

Unfortunately, LEED continues to offer credit only for FSC-certified wood, a standard called “FSC or better,” despite the existence of other excellent alternatives. Like the green building coordinator at Ecology, the reason has more to do with politics than science. The basic problem is there is no single FSC standard in the U.S. and what passes in one region may not pass in another. The standards are often different in neighboring states even when forest types are identical.

The Society of American Foresters, the premier scientific group addressing forestry science, is frustrated with LEED’s political approach.

“‘FSC or better’ is neither logical nor scientific,” said Michael Goergen Jr., executive vice president and CEO of the Society of American Foresters, “especially when it continues to reinforce misconceptions about third-party forest certification and responsible forest practices.”

We’ve written extensively about the failure of LEED to live up to environmental promises. Despite claiming that LEED buildings save energy and pay for themselves, real-world experience shows the buildings not only cost more to build, they often use more energy than their non-green counterparts in Washington state, New Mexico and elsewhere.

By focusing only on FSC-certified wood, rather than sustainable forestry practices in general, LEED only adds to the mistakes it makes from substituting politics for sound science.

Creating as Much Responsible Forestry as We Can: An interview with SFI’s President & CEO Kathy Abusow

At an SFI conference which included native groups from the United States and Canada last year, one member representing the Yakama Nation tribe explained why they chose to certify their forests using the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI). With a tone of pride at retelling the story, SFI’s President Kathy Abusow said the forester explained the decision: “We could understand the standard and we could apply it. It was based on training and had sound science.”

It was a comment offered early in the conversation I had with Abusow recently, and it is emblematic of SFI’s approach to sustainable forestry.

If the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) stresses the forest protections provided by its standard, SFI® stresses the ability to consistently and scientifically apply its forestry standards. It is a natural approach for SFI, a standard that operates only in Canada and the United States, where there is a strong underlying legal system that allows SFI to focus on “additional performance measures,” providing assurance to timber purchasers that the wood has been harvested to high standards.

Abusow is familiar with both systems and understands the challenges faced in creating a sound, science-based system of forest certification. Before joining SFI as its President, she served on the FSC Canada Great Lakes standards development committee. With that experience in hand, she puts an emphasis on making the standard practical so it spreads. “We believe in added value, not added burden,” she explained in an interview with Forest Certification Watch recently. We want to create as much responsible forestry as we can.”

The key, however, is to ensure the program is credible, and to do that Abusow stresses the need for science, transparency and independence.

Ironically, much of the critique of SFI from supporters of FSC regards the issue of independence. When SFI began, it was associated with the American Forest & Paper Association. Opponents argued that the forestry industry couldn’t effectively police itself. Today, however, it is completely independent and Abusow has clearly been asked about this issue many times.

“It was spun out a decade ago,” she reiterates. ”SFI is now a separate 501(c)3 charitable organization and includes three chambers of the board to emphasize environmental, economic and social issues.” She also notes that while FSC specifically excludes governments from their organization, SFI specifically includes them. “We can’t exclude government,” she explained, arguing that government was part of the landscape and needed to be at the table when decisions are being made.

SFI has also worked to create a diverse board, which ensures that no single interest can dominate. Abusow points to the presence of deans of forestry schools, labor representatives, environmental advocates and others who all have a say in the final rules.

An additional area of contrast stressed by Abusow is the separation between the body that sets the standards and the body that applies the standards. “The golden rule is that you have standard development which is independent of a certification audit,” she notes. This prevents the standards from being adjusted to suit particular organizations.

Many people are familiar with the practice of some government agencies or other groups that write grant or RFP rules to suit a favored group. The same is true, argues Abusow, of forest certification standards. By separating the creation of the standards from the auditing of those standards, i.e. focusing on goals not the potential clients, SFI works to avoid that type of gaming the system. Certifiers apply standards equally to all organizations looking to receive the SFI seal of approval. “We are avoiding a scenario where the board decides who should be certified,” says Abusow. We need to “keep focused on the science and not let politics enter into our decisions.”

And while FSC supporters complain about SFI’s process, Abusow says the FSC system risks having politics influence the rules. “Accreditation Services International certifies accreditation bodies and they report to FSC’s board and are an arm of FSC” so they have their hand in both decisions. “You see some curious things.”

SFI is also very proud of the transparency of their process for setting the rules. When the draft standards are revised every five years, they solicit input from the public and other stakeholder groups. “Every comment that comes to us is put on our website,” she notes. “We review every single comment and post a response to every single comment. Then there is peer review of our responses.” That process may be cumbersome, but the bottom line, as Abusow explains, is “we don’t make changes willy nilly.”

SFI does have some international footprint beyond North America. Although 98 percent of SFI certified timber is from North American forests, SFI-certified wood is sold to overseas customers. Both the UK and Japanese governments are amongst many who offer SFI equal recognition with other certification standards.

Later this month, SFI will be launching a new effort to highlight the value of certification and good forestry beyond the narrow confines of individual timber harvests. Using the slogan “The future is decided now,” Abusow explains that well-managed, working forests are about more than just what happens on the site of a harvest. “We want to get people thinking about the unintended consequences of corporate procurement policies or government policies that feels comfortable but creates unintended consequences.” A strong believer in the environmental value of timber as a construction material, Abusow says the organization has been highlighting the dangers of creating restrictions around well-managed wood products that end up being too constricting, doing more harm than good to forests and the environment.

It is a theme I heard frequently while working at Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources. Strict limits in Washington meant more harvesting in Russia, where even FSC-certified harvests meet a much lower environmental standard than uncertified harvests in the United States.

Finding that right balance can be a challenge, and Abusow says she welcomes the competition from other certification systems. SFI’s own brochure includes a comment from the National Association of State Foresters, saying “No certification program can credibly claim to be ‘best’, and no certification program that promotes itself as the only certification option can maintain credibility.”

SFI’s new theme and the work they’ve done to create a program that is independent, transparent and science-based is all part of Abusow’s goal to “create as much responsible forestry as we can.” And despite the competition from other certification standards, she is confident SFI is on the right path to do just that.

Uncertified Conversion: Unintended Consequences of Forest Certification

Nonindustrial private forest landowners provide about half of the nation’s wood and steward nearly 360 million acres of forestland. These lands also provide numerous ecosystem services such as water purification, wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration.

Forest certification, generally considered a voluntary act to recognize good forest stewardship, may hamper the ability of some of these small private forest owners to manage their land. Timber products flow through a chain of custody from forest owner to processor and through production to create the final product. Certification requirements along that supply chain can restrict market access for non-certified forest owners. Home Depot, for example, sells certified timber products, hence buys from certified processors who must buy from certified forests owners. The cost of certification, however, may outweigh the benefits.

Forest certification can be a costly endeavor for small forest owners. Certification entails the costs of the certification process (auditor visits, travel, report writing, and monitoring) and on the ground expenditures of additional forest planning, infrastructure, and possible reduced harvest.

To date, there are few reported price premiums on certified forest products. As a result, most certification costs are borne by the producer.

Evidence reported by Reed Watson of PERC suggests that increased certification requirements or mandates “will produce the unintended consequence of hastening forest conversion (Forest Landowner March/April 2012).” The small forest land owner that faces restricted timber markets due to certification requirements may find forest conversion more beneficial than certification.

This blog is cross-posted from EnvironmentalTrends.org