Forestry Certification Means We Can’t See The Wood For The Trees
Developed and developing countries alike must play a role in addressing climate change, a reality that we simply cannot escape. However, many suppliers in the forest products market, especially small- and medium-sized firms, are concerned that the red tape resulting from environmental policy is in danger of creating more paperwork than it’s intended to save.
There is genuine concern that the certified-forestry movement is running out of steam, even among the environmentalists. In its recent ‘Forest Products Annual Market Review, 2008-2009′, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) states, “The pace of expansion of global certified forest area has slowed dramatically in the last three years.” According to the report, whereas certified forest area increased by around 50 million hectares a year between 2001 and 2005 – mainly due to increases in North America – it slowed to just 25 million hectares a year in 2006 and 2007. More recently the rate has declined even more, to less than 4 million hectares between May 2008 and May 2009.
Ironically, this twist in the fate of forestry certification comes at a time when the general public seems finally to be getting a better understanding of forests and climate change. Down 6 percentage points from a figure of 55% in 2007, in the latest survey by the UK’s Forestry Commission, only 49% of respondents agreed with the erroneous statement that ‘the United Kingdom could offset all its greenhouse gas emissions by planting more trees’. In fact, the UK would need some 50 million hectares – roughly twice the land area of the entire nation – to do this. Only 13% of those questioned believed that ‘there is nothing anyone could do that would make any difference’, encouragingly for the green lobby.
Figures in UNECE’s Forest Products Annual Market Review show that the proportion of ‘industrial roundwood’ emanating from forests certified by environmental organisations as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has actually fallen to 25.9%. Ignorance is one reason for poor demand for certification – according to a recent survey, only 12% of US family forest owners have even heard of forest certification – the real culprit is more difficult to tackle. Conquered all its easy targets, the fact is that the sustainable forestry movement; leaving only the more challenging targets of smaller and privately owned forests, along with land in developing countries, many of the largest state- and commercially-owned forestry operations in developed nations have already been certified. Among the forestry operations, there is certainly a perception that only larger landowners can afford the administrative costs of obtaining certified status. There appear to be many sustainably managed forests that are not certified and there are undoubtedly a few certified forests that are not sustainably managed at all. In this situation, it certainly is difficult to see the wood for the trees.
Moving down the supply chain, many suppliers of wood or paper products simply cannot justify the additional costs of sourcing materials from certified forests, a fact that the recent UNECE report concedes: “A situation which places significant limits on the ability of suppliers to charge more, generally there is great reluctance among end-users to pay premiums for certified or verified legal wood products.”
One glimmer of hope for the environmentalists has to be the recent growth in chain-of-custody (CoC) certifications, which have risen by 41% in the past year. CoC tracks certified material through the production process, from the forest to the consumer, with only CoC certified operations allowed to label products with the logo of the certification body, such as the FSC. Enabling consumers to make environmentally informed purchasing decisions, this marque then provides a link between responsible production and consumption.
The problem is that even CoC certification involves considerable effort and a reasonable amount of cost, putting even this route beyond the reach of many smaller businesses in the forest products market. Even if they had the resources to invest in gaining CoC status, many of the smaller players are discouraged by the knowledge that some printers and paper companies use their CoC paperwork to achieve positive public relations, without having to demonstrate that they are committed to actually using certified paper or board.
UNECE’s latest Forest Products Annual Market Review highlights the fact that forest product markets have been severely affected by the global recession, the roots of which can be found in the collapse of the market providing the main driver of demand for wood products – housing – brought about by the sub-prime fiasco. The paper industry, for example, continues its painful restructuring, with production in Europe and North America falling a massive 17% in 2008 and prices continuing to fall.
Next month, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen will negotiate the successor of the Kyoto Protocol and there are high expectations that UN-REDD (United Nations Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) will strengthen the forest sector carbon markets. Staggeringly, deforestation and forest degradation – through agricultural expansion, conversion to pastureland, infrastructure development, destructive logging, fires and so on – account for nearly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector. UN-REDD is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. The developed world must understand, however, that REDD activities in developing countries must complement – rather than be a substitute for – reductions in their own emissions. Only by each playing our part – whether certified or not – will we tackle climate change, root and branch.