Tangled up in green

As the forest biomass industry ramps up, harvesting wood for energy is coming under increasing scrutiny.

To help regulate the “green gold rush,” many scientists, ecologists and renewable energy producers are looking for guidance to programs that certify forest management as sustainable. Many of these were developed after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, prompted in part by widespread concern over massive deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Several countries came up with strategies to discourage deforestation and promote sustainable forests without having to rely entirely on slow-moving government regulation.

One of most common strategies is third-party certification programs. These are an attempt to verify that wood and its byproducts come from responsibly managed forests and supply chains – that is, that harvesting and production of wood products is sustainable and doesn’t threaten the environment. So far, only about 10 percent of the world’s four billion hectares of forests are certified. Western Europe and North America are the top contenders: North America has the most “coverage”: more than 200 million hectares of its forest – or roughly 33 percent – are certified. But with 85 million hectares protected by sustainability standards, Western Europe has certified more of its forests – nearly 50 percent.

There are more than 50 different independent national and international forest certification programs, most of them voluntary. The programs don’t always agree on what to require or prohibit —or even on the definition of woody biomass—but they share a goal of responsibly managed forestlands.

The two biggest forest certification programs were developed by groups with historically different interests: The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), backed by environmental groups; and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which was founded by the lumber and paper industry but is now independent.

So far, only about 10 percent of the world’s four billion hectares of forests are certified

FSC is generally regarded as more restrictive about some issues such as clear cutting and the use of pesticides, and it prohibits genetically modified organisms. However, both organizations have representatives from the environmental community and industry sitting on their boards, and the older differences are becoming less distinct.

“The concept for the Forest Stewardship Council was to create a stamp of environmental approval for consumers” – whether big corporate buyers or do-it-yourselfers shopping for lumber at the local Home Depot – “to use market incentives to promote good forest management to create a link from the consumer to the forest itself,” says Darrel Pendris, FSC’s Southeast regional manager.

“The Sustainable Forestry Initiative grew out of similar desires on the part of wood products industry – to demonstrate that the industry is harvesting and managing forest resources in a responsible way and meeting management standards,” said Nadine Block, SFI vice president of government affairs. “Our standard is meant to apply to the forests, regardless of end product – building products, paper or energy.”

SFI is the largest certifier internationally, responsible for 240 million acres worldwide. Along with FSC, it accounts for most of the certification that occurs in North American forests. It sets criteria that whoever manages a particular forest (whether it’s the government or a private landowner) meets standards for forest management sustainability in every step of the “chain of custody” as the products move from the forest to the consumer.

What they don’t do is the actual on-the-ground auditing of practices. In North America and elsewhere, that’s done for a fee by third-party auditing organizations, such as Rainforest Alliance, SCS Global Services, and Bureau Veritas. The costs of the audit are borne by the landowners and range from less than $1 an acre for large land areas to around $6 per acre for smaller forests. Costs of audits, which are higher per acre for smaller landowners, may be one reason some fail to seek certification or avoid markets requiring certification.

While not mandatory, certification’s seal of approval is required by large companies and other major players in the international forest products markets – and by customers in Europe and other energy-conscious countries seeking energy incentive credits for woody biomass.

The two certifiers have sometimes been at loggerheads over issues such as labeling. The U.S. Green Building Council, for example, uses only FSC standards for its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating systems, cutting SFI-labeled products out of some green markets.

“Despite certification having been around for 20 years and biomass for the better part of 10 years, both these things are in their infancy.” – Darrel Pendris, Forest Stewardship Council

And in one recent, embarrassing skirmish, as reported by Forbes magazine, FSC member Greenpeace claimed it had GPS-verifiable proof that an industry member, Resolute Forest Products, was building logging roads in Quebec areas forbidden by the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA). Amid much high rhetoric and bad feelings, Greenpeace quit the CBFA it had helped form. But Resolute produced documentation it had not violated the agreement, and Greenpeace ultimately confirmed its evidence was based on inaccurate maps and that its allegations were untrue.

Still, both groups share commitments to forest sustainability, and their criteria for managing forests are converging, according to a team of University of North Carolina professors who compared certification from both organizations at university-owned lands in the state.

Is third-party forest certification sufficient?

The question is: Do sustainability criteria need to be expanded or modified for bioenergy?

Being certified alone does not guarantee that wood will be considered for all uses. The U.S. Forest Service allows some selective harvest and residue collecting on federal forests but under stringently controlled conditions, but biomass from public lands do not qualify as renewable feedstocks (raw material for bioenergy) under the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The RFS also requires that feedstocks (including woody biomass) must be shown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One concern is that the rising demand for biomass may encourage landowners to clear land elsewhere, or replace natural forests with plantations. This might result in a decline in biodiversity or even an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to some experts. “Forest certification needs to look at those issues straight on and take them into account,” says FSC’s Pendris. “Given that it has a balanced membership of stakeholders, it’s probably well suited to hosting the debate.”

Nonetheless, that debate – and biomass product certification – have gotten off to a slow start. The European Union has established sustainability criteria for transportation fuels but nations have lagged in setting standards for heating or generating electricity. It was just four years ago when the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program certified the first U.S. biomass pellet mill – Curran Renewable Energy – using FSC standards. Says Pendris, “Despite certification having been around for 20 years and biomass for the better part of 10, both these things are in their infancy.”

In the absence of clear restrictions on wood pellets coming into the European Union, EU businesses and utilities have taken the initiative, developing certifications such as Green Gold Label, Nordic Ecolabel, and Laborelec, to ensure products meet recommended criteria “so when they import (pellets) they’re not putting their business at risk,” says Tat Smith, dean of forestry at the University of Toronto. “They’re making sure that their supply chain is meeting EU standards. That should have positive benefits for North American forests.”

If the U.S. pellet export industry certifications don’t meet, or “harmonize” with sustainability standards under development in Europe, pellet mills may lose their markets there.

Indeed, as European countries tighten concerns and criteria for forest products that come from sustainable harvesting practices, standards for North American forest bioenergy products may soon be pushed into high gear.

“The U.S. wood pellet industry is no longer below the radar,” Biomass Magazine wrote in an article endorsing certification programs. “Those who do not address customer concerns about the sustainability of the forest could face a number of jarring speed bumps along the way.”

The newest may be the mandatory standards from the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change, which take effect April 15, 2015. Essentially, they say that if electricity producers want to generate Renewable Energy Credits, then they must audit and verify that 70 percent of wood used to make pellets for electric generation meets certification in every step of the supply chain. If the U.S. pellet export industry certifications don’t meet, or “harmonize” with these and other standards under development in Europe, pellet mills will lose their markets there.

Jody Endres, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, says it’s not so much a question of how much regulation there is but rather its lack of a coordinated framework, particularly for private lands. “One of the problems is that at the federal level there are not mandatory sustainability standards for the bioenergy sector that are applied consistently on private lands throughout the 50 states,” she said. “This may result in the perception that sustainable forest management policy is not stringent enough.”

Effective certification needs to be accurate, verifiable and transparent, says Endres. Some environmental groups would argue that many standards, such as SFI, fall short in that area. “Ultimately, sustainability requirements require more than a piece of paper: there must be a solid framework in place that facilitates transparent data to back up claims. Otherwise, governments are adding costs to the bioeconomy and do not achieve the environmental gains they tout in the policies they write.”

Effective certification needs to be accurate, verifiable, and transparent.

The other major issue – whether using wood for energy is carbon neutral – won’t be resolved until scientists conduct painstaking life-cycle analyses of forest biomass production in a range of different scenarios. Only then will they be able to determine the forests, methods, and transport that can be employed to make biomass a better choice than fossil fuels.

State of the forest worldwide. Intact (dark green): 21%. Working (light green): 32%. Lost (beige): 47%. Credit: World Wildlife Fund

“I think certification systems are going to be more and more prevalent in everything we do,” says Smith of the University of Toronto. “Consumers are concerned about their purchasing decisions. And frankly, certification schemes are the most logical way to go.”

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