The U.S. Green Building Council is to be applauded for the release last week of the new pilot credit, MRpc102 – Legal Wood.
There may be no single subject matter more discussed with over the 15-year history of LEED than forest product certification. And that this new pilot credit continues the discussion is positive.
But make no mistake: this new alternative compliance path credit does not alter the existing LEED credit, NC v4 MRc3, that mandates: “Wood products must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or USGBC-approved equivalent.”
That existing credit for certified wood has only been achieved on 1,677 of LEED 2009 new construction projects, so despite all the discussion it has not been a market mover. The vast majority of LEED buildings have not pursued that credit.
And despite much that has been said in the past week, including by a variety of wood industry trade groups declaring victory, USGBC has not approved any “equivalent” to FSC-certified wood.
What USGBC did (within the April 5, 2016 quarterly addenda to LEED) was include a new temporary alternative compliance path credit:
MRpc102 Legal Wood| Possible 1 point
Use wood verified to be from Legal (non-controversial) Sources as defined by ASTM D7612-10. These components include at a minimum, structural framing and general dimensional framing, flooring, sub-flooring, wood doors and finishes.
70% (based on cost) of all wood used on the project must be from Responsible Sources as defined by ASTM D7612-10. These components include at a minimum, structural framing and general dimensional framing, flooring, sub-flooring, wood doors and finishes.
A minimum of 50% (based on cost) of wood-based materials and products must be sourced from Certified Sources as defined by ASTM D7612-10. These components include at a minimum, structural framing and general dimensional framing, flooring, sub-flooring, wood doors and finishes.
This pilot alternative compliance path can be used in place of credits in LEED 2009 for New Construction and Commercial Interiors as well as for Existing Buildings, and in LEED v4 Building Design + Construction, Operations and Management, and Homes.
Pilot is to ‘test an approach’
USGBC’s announcement of the pilot credit said that the aim was “to test an approach to prerequisite requirements, which could serve as a model for other building materials.” But it has been suggested by some among the environmental industrial complex that a future LEED prerequisite mandating that all wood used on every LEED project be FSC-certified (i.e., having the effect of excluding wood from two-thirds of certified forests in North America) would be devastating to the rating system, provoking the ire of many.
Note that a senior policy-making staffer at USGBC has been quoted describing this as a pilot for “responsible sourcing of all materials that go into a building such as concrete, steel, copper and other materials.” Recall that the U.S. Green Building Council was originally named the U.S. Green Manufacturers Council, reflecting that the target members were building product manufacturers. Given the increased emphasis, more than 20 years later, on building materials, that name change provides real insight into the future of the organization.
A real concern over this new Legal Wood pilot credit is that it is not actually about “legal wood” but rather is about a subset of wood from trees managed under some forest certification system. Wood that is not certified as “managed” is not illegal. It is simply not from a managed tree. That distinction is huge, because the referenced ASTM standard accepts that “forest certification is still a small fraction of total forest acreage,” going on to mention that only 10% of forests are certified. Again, that does not mean that wood from the other 90% of forests is illegal, but rather only that it is not from a certified forest.
So, this is about forest management practices. Forests can be managed across a broad spectrum of philosophies from high-yield “crop style” plantations at one extreme to parks and preserves at the other. Since 2005, the Weyerhaeuser Company has planted more than one billion trees, and it is from forests like those that we get most U.S. certified wood (although most of that acreage is not FSC-certified).
Again, this is about certified versus not certified. There are existing laws, including the Lacey Act, to prohibit illegal forest products. Section 8204 of that Act as amended in 2008 is titled “Prevention of Illegal Logging Practices.” The Act provides the legal authority to take action when products stemming from illegal logging enter the U.S. Declaration forms are required for all forest products imported into the U.S., and these forms specify the country of origin.
But the same may not be true elsewhere. Russia has the second largest quantity of FSC-certified wood in the world (after Canada), but 25% of Russia’s timber exports are described as originating from illegal logging, and in some cases the FSC logo is being misused.
Across the rest of the globe, more than 2.8 billion residents of poor and developing countries gather and burn wood illegally for fuel to keep warm and cook food. But that subsistence wood does not find its way into LEED buildings in the U.S.
Does it mean something else?
So is the Legal Wood pilot credit a misnomer?
ASTM Standard D7612-10 (2015) provides in its appendix:
X1.3 Organizations promulgating the most prominent forest certification programs throughout the world are the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association Sustainable Forest Management Standard Z-809 (CSA-SFM), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC), and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
Absent application of this pilot credit, the USGBC is out of step in only accepting FSC-certified wood. Other green building councils, from Australia and Italy to Spain, and other rating systems, including ICC 700, Green Globes, and the IgCC, all accept a variety of forest certification standards.
But make no mistake: USGBC has been consistent. In 2010, USGBC members in a consensus ballot rejected including forest certification standards other than FSC. Early versions of LEED v4 opened that same door only to have it closed in the adopted version of v4.
USGBC’s FSC-only position has been a lightning rod for opponents. The pilot credit will effectively repeal Maryland’s longstanding statute forbidding the LEED wood credit from being pursued in government projects or other projects seeking LEED-based tax incentives. But this pilot credit will not repeal similar statutes and executive orders in Maine, Georgia, and elsewhere.
And the pilot credit is about much more than just wood for construction, as “wood based products” includes even office paper (in the MRc1, Sustainable Purchasing: Ongoing Consumables credit).
There are risks in an FSC-only rule
It’s possible that the discussion around evaluating the efficacy of this temporary pilot credit — a discussion which is planned to take place on an expedited basis over the coming months — should focus on expanding the use of wood from certified sources. Such an approach could complement an effort to provide a framework to help the green building industry identify the reliable evidence needed to substantiate product claims as required by the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides.
Zealots should be aware that an FSC-only certification for LEED buildings may do modest harm to the world’s forests. But requiring a single proprietary certification program may significantly wound the LEED rating system, further provoking the ire of governments and businesses alike.
Again, the U.S. Green Building Council should be applauded for providing wood products manufacturers, distributors, and retailers with an opportunity to further discuss clear and objective information with the broader business community regarding specific forest management and forest certification programs.
Stuart Kaplow is an attorney specializing in environmental law as it relates to the business community. This post originally appeared at his website, Green Building Law Update.