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Failing to LEED the Way Towards Sustainable Forestry

Posted by LeAndra Spicer on June 24, 2013
As the green movement has taken hold over the past decade, terms such as “environmentally-friendly” and “energy-efficient” have become increasingly familiar across all aspects of the consumer marketplace. Paving the way for green building, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program has developed into the industry standard for environmentally-friendly and energy-efficiency construction.

According to the US Green Building Council (USGBC) – the group responsible for LEED oversight – 44,270 projects in the US were registered or certified under voluntary LEED standards as of May 2013[2]. Unfortunately, it is a good bet few of those projects earned LEED credit for incorporating certified sustainable wood.

Under its current guidelines, LEED only recognizes wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or a “USGBC-approved equivalent.” Certified timber is worth one point on the 110-point LEED scale, and locally grown wood is also worth one point. The number of points required for LEED certification differs per building project, ranging from 40-49 points for certification and extending to upwards of 80-90 points for platinum status.

Because the USGBC has not deemed any other organization an “approved equivalent,” the current LEED system excludes timber and wood products certified by alternative standards set forth both by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) from LEED credit. Furthermore, 75 percent of certified North American forests are qualified by organizations other than FSC.[3]

The apparent discrepancy begs the question, why does LEED recognize only FSC standards? The USGBC has not documented its rationale for accepting FSC while refusing to acknowledge other certification bodies. It has also failed to define its process for deciding standards deemed equivalent.

Given this lack of transparency, the organization’s motives have been left open to speculation. The USGBC accepted FSC standards in the mid-90s as the group was the only certification body in existence at the time. Popular opinion suggests strong environmental lobbies have helped hold FSC certification in place despite legitimate competitors entering the market.

Such a lack of competition is counterintuitive to what consumers have to come to expect – perhaps even demand – when they shop. In allowing just one certification scheme, LEED effectively bulldozes the economic needs of the forest industry and its consumers. Whether the USGBC likes it or not, economic factors are a legitimate consideration for sustainable forestry. As Wayne Winegarden recently wrote in Forbes:

 “A sustainable forest is broadly understood as one that conserves biodiversity, protects endangered species, is vibrant, is capable of regenerating, and is managed responsibly. Maintaining a sustainable forest also ensures that the economic needs of the timber industry and its consumers are also fulfilled. [4]

States Push Back

A number of states have taken measures to level the playing field where the use of certified versus locally sourced wood compete. On June 17, the North Carolina Senate passed a bill that favors in-state wood and wood products and allows for alternative green building systems beyond LEED for public building projects. The bill must now be reconciled with the House version that called for banning LEED altogether.

The actions of North Carolina’s legislators followed on the heels of Florida governor Rick Scott signing similar measures into his state’s law on June 14. The Florida measure also gives preference to in-state wood and approves a choice of sustainable building qualifications beyond LEED when constructing or renovating schools, government buildings and other publicly-owned projects.

Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Maine have banned LEED from government construction projects. Though South Carolina does not prohibit LEED, the state does not allow public projects to earn points for certified wood.

Anti-LEED measures are popular in the southern United States given the FSC certifies just one percent of timberland in this region. The SFI and the ATFS certify 10 percent and seven percent, respectively, of southern US forests. Nationwide, the FSC certifies 4.5 percent of forestland. The SFI certifies 8 percent and the ATFS 3.5 percent. For a breakdown of totals by region, see Suz-Anne Kinney’s blog Should I Certify My Timberland?

It is possible that federal construction and renovation projects may follow the lead of the states and open up alternative green-building standards such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes program. ANSI is one of three accreditation bodies that work with SFI.

Attacks Against SFI Continue

Amidst the ongoing discontent with LEED, FSC and SFI continue to spar. In late May, ForestEthics and Greenpeace (perhaps in an attempt to recover from its bungled attack on the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement) joined forces to file a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint against the SFI.

The complaint alleges the SFI violates FTC “Green Guides” by representing the interests of the forest products industries in its certification schemes. The complaint makes no mention of reports that ForestEthics has “received funds to promote FSC.”[5] The FTC previously took no action on a similar ForestEthics complaint filed in 2009.

Unlike the USGBC, ForestEthics and the FSC have regularly spoken out against SFI practices. The organizations allege the SFI allows a number of practices they deem harmful, such as clearcutting, pesticides and plantation-style planting. In reality, both organizations allow room for these practices, though to different degrees.

The SFI has clearly outlined both its practices and those of the FSC in a detailed fact sheet. Dovetail Partners, a non-profit organization unaffiliated with the FSC and the SFI, has also published a report comparing the two programs.

It is somewhat baffling that environmental groups expend resources to attack a certification body when the majority of forests throughout the world are not certified and, as such, face risk from unsustainable harvests and deforestation. Then again, when considering the market for green products and services has an estimated annual value of $500 billion, the motive becomes clearer.

A choice among certification programs – which at their core all exist to further sustainable forests – gives landowners the opportunity to formally submit to responsible forest management. Opening the door to competition encourages economic growth and improves the quantity and quality of sustainable goods.

USGBC representatives are expected to vote on the latest version of the green building standards within the month of June. To sign a petition in support of opening up LEED standards to certification bodies beyond the FSC, please click here.


Comments

PABLO KORACH

06-25-2013

Is there a higher rating than Leed Platinum? What does a construction need to be rated Leed DIAMONDS?

Imagine an innovation where the lumber used is manufactured with a new technology that obtains double the yield of lumber from small diameter logs compared to the yield obtained today in a sawmill. Last but not least is the fact that through a new engineered wood technology we are able to build

the whole houses with this new technology. Just one more advantage is that now we need only half the volume of trees and the other half remains standing in the forest, helping to decrease global warming, keep the water and trap CO2.

Pablo Korach


Comments

LeAndra Spicer

06-25-2013

Hello Pablo,

LEED Platinum is the highest rating. The complete rating system is listed on the web page found at: http://www.usgbc.org/leed/certification/certify


Comments

Libre

07-04-2013

Keep in mind that CO2 is not released immediately when timber is processed into lumber, so the argument that cutting forests increases CO2 release is limited.  Especially when you factor regeneration - younger trees suck up more CO2 than mature trees.

Topics: forest sustainability

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