Forest certification: a small step towards sustainability

Certifying timber gives some level of certainty that forest products are sustainable. CIFOR/Flickr

It can be hard to know whether the forest products you buy have been produced sustainably. Forestry certifications were established to give a bit more certainty, but what do they really mean? When you buy a certified product, are you necessarily helping the environment?

A short history of certification

The two international forestry certifications - Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certifications (PEFC) - have had an interesting history over the past 20 years. There are often clouded interpretations and miss-interpretations of how each came about. Regardless, forestry certifications have been a powerful and leading force in the battle for the environment.

According to environmental NGOs, governments failed to agree on how to address rapid deforestation, mostly in the tropics. As a result NGOs stepped up and created what they believe to be a workable global certification system, FSC.

Yet another account is that the economically poor but forest-rich tropical nations refused to bow to western NGO pressure, forcing them to take up a forestry standard that could be used as some form of trade barrier.

Scholars question the role and effectiveness of international forest certifications. They say the vast majority of forest certificates issued are in the economically rich temperate and boreal forest nations, not the poor tropical nations where most deforestation occurs.

FSC, PEFC: what’s the difference?

There are only two international forestry schemes. The first and original is FSC. It was started in 1992 mostly by a group of North American environmental groups with WWF in the USA as the driving force.

FSC, generally speaking, is a top down approach to forestry certification. Corey Brinkema – US President of FSC - told an Australian forest industry conference in Melbourne last year that FSC has a guiding set of principles on what is sustainable forestry. He said that aggressive action from NGOs such as WWF and the Nature Conservancy, puts pressure on commercial organisations to take up the FSC scheme.

PEFC has also been around since the mid 1990s. The PEFC was originally called the Pan European Forestry Certification, but in 1998 changed its name to reflect its growing international role and the method.

PEFC is a set of principles on sustainable forestry practices. Rather than being a certification, PEFC is a meta-standard that verifies the quality of any national forestry certification schemes.

There are currently 167 national forest schemes around the world. Some national schemes are very robust while others only cover the basic parameters of good forestry practices. PEFC endorses national schemes that can achieve a high level of performance, based on the principles set out by PEFC in Geneva.

Currently 37 national schemes are signed up to PEFC, with 35 achieving full PEFC recognition. China and Uruguay are recent signatories to PEFC but are not yet recognised and therefore not able to use the PEFC name and logo.

Achieving full PEFC recognition is not a simple task. According to Kayt Watts, CEO of the Australian Forest Standard, it took eight years to develop the Australian standard and a further three years to gain full PEFC recognition.

Other national schemes take as long to manoeuvre through the recognition process.

Different strokes for different forests

There have been a number of comparisons of the two schemes, FSC and PEFC. However the differences are not that great, to the point that many governmental authorities and other bodies around the world consider them equal.

The one overriding difference is that FSC attempts to have a single standard that is applied globally, while PEFC is flexible to national characteristics by certifying existing national schemes. In terms of size, PEFC has more than twice as much forest area under its certification than FSC.

The truth is that forests around the world are not all the same. Forestry practices in the extremely cold boreal forests, where long-fibre softwood trees grow very slowly, are completely different to those in the tropics, where fast growth hardwood short-fibre varieties are the norm.

Large-scale monoculture plantation forestry is best employed in regions where tree growth is extremely rapid, such as the tropics. As the yield of timber per hectare is incredibly high it means that only small areas of land need to be cleared on each harvest cycle.

In the case of slow-growing temperate or boreal trees, managed forestry techniques work better. Although a large amount of land needs to be cleared in order to yield the same volume of wood, well-managed methods of selective clearing ensure a sustainable ecosystem and soil quality.

However, despite the vast differences in forest management techniques across the world the two schemes appear to successfully satisfy the requirements of sustainable forestry.

So how does Australia stack up?

There are continual debates about how sustainable managed natural forestry systems are in Australia. These have particularly been raised by some groups in recent times in Victoria.

Managed forestry, completely different to plantations, has been the staple method of forest systems operating in regions such as Scandinavia for the past 100 years at least. Not only has the forest industry in Scandinavia grown to become the region’s dominant industry sector but forest cover has increased year on year.

For example, Sweden has a land mass of 44 million hectares, and it has 23 million hectares of forest cover, which includes 22 million hectares of production forest. The Swedes appear to have managed to achieve a nation that is green and environmentally responsible, yet at the same time the vast majority of its forest cover is used for production. Both FSC and PEFC operate in Sweden with almost the entire country covered under either one or often both schemes.

Does certification work for developing nations?

Generally the forestry certifications schemes are used between government and business as a mechanism to ensure that wood products are being grown, harvested, processed and sold sustainably. The average person in the community is, to date, reluctant to pay for additional certifications that prove the environmental characteristics of a product.

This poses an issue for the new regions coming into the international wood trade. The voluntary certifications such as FSC and PEFC are costly. Poor countries in the developing world find it difficult to afford certifications. Suppliers from the established nations have a different scale of economy and are therefore not faced with the same cost problems in getting certifications.

This point has been raised by scholars exploring certifications. It adds to the proposition that certifications can act as a trade barrier against developing nations.

Further to this point is that FSC do not readily certify forests that have been planted after 1994. The fact that the developing nations only started their timber industry in the mid to late 1990s also supports the proposition that certifications can act as a trade barrier.

Frederick List and Ha-joon Chang both have made the point that the developed nations have effectively “kicked away the ladder”, taking away the opportunities for poor countries to achieve the same level of development as the rich western nations.

Certification replaced by law

Forestry certifications may be questioned in the future, or their importance may reduce over time with the introduction of international laws on the export and import of illegal wood products. Less than 10% of the world’s total forest area is covered by certifications. Addressing the legality of the international wood trade may be the most appropriate method of dealing with forestry concerns.

Deforestation is a major problem; however, the reality is that land is cleared for a number of pressing reasons. Economic development for plantations and palm oil obviously receive a great deal of media coverage. But the amount of forest land in the developing world each year cleared for food crops is significant and fills a legitimate need in that region with a high populations growth rates.

The complexity of the forestry issue is only partially addressed with international forestry certifications.