30 November 2009 – There has been a battle going on. It is a battle between sections of the forestry industry and the Green Building Council of Australia and so far it has taken place behind closed doors. But it is gathering pace and the big guns have been called in – politicians at the highest level, both state and federal. They have been called upon by the timber industry to pull the GBCA into line – and they have heeded the call.
Today the GBCA announced it will make concessions to the Australian forestry industry by revising the way it accredits timber used in commercial buildings. But this appears to be little more than a standoff.
This is much more than a battle between two organisations – it reveals the historical divide between a core group of the Australian forestry industry and those at the forefront of the push for higher standards of sustainability. It also reveals the far reaching links between government and the resources sector.
And it is a battle that is undermining the advancement of sustainable practices in the Australian building sector, environmental consultant, Andrew Walker-Morison, told The Fifth Estate this week.
A leading expert on timber production practices and previously the manager of the sustainable materials program at the Centre for Design at RMIT, Mr Walker-Morison believes the current interference by state and federal governments in the GBCA’s operations is unprecedented and will deliver a blow to its independence.
“This issue is much bigger than two certification schemes or even the forestry sector in Australia. This is about the valuable role that the Green Building Council can play in arbitrating the positions of stakeholders in the context of its proclaimed aim of the top 25 per cent of performance in Australia. If it is it unable to do this or is prevented from achieving this then ultimately we are all the poorer whether it’s the timber industry, the government or the broader community.
“The government is undermining not just the GBCA’s rating system, but the ability for such independent organisations to assist the raising of environmental standards,” said Mr Walker-Morison.
The crux of the battle is that the forestry industry, and the sector’s union, the CFMEU, takes exception to the GBCA’s accreditation framework for timber used in commercial buildings. To get credits for timber in its materials assessment section the GBCA until recently required that timber come from forests operating under the international certification scheme, the Forestry Stewardship Council or that it be recycled timber.
The problem is that 80 to 90 per cent of Australia’s forestry industry operates under the Australian Forestry Standard. This means that timber from these forests could not receive credit points under the Green Star rating scheme. The timber could still be used in buildings but just wouldn’t get the two credit points possible in this section of the ratings.
The forestry industry argued that this was causing architects and builders to use timber from overseas plantations rather than from Australia.
The GBCA responded to pressure to change its timber requirement by undertaking a review of the accreditation for timber. As a result of the review it modified its requirements, saying that timber did not have to be FSC certified as long as it met certain requirements.
The union was not satisfied with this, first taking its case to the Victorian government, which responded a few months ago by including a clause in its Draft Timber Strategy that states that any timber that does not have Australian Forestry Standard certification will not be used in government projects.
The union took the issue further, two weeks ago managing to get its case on the agenda of the Natural Resources Ministerial Council, no mean feat as this is where high level policy issues are discussed. According to sources, the union in its submission to the Council made personal attacks on GBCA chairman Tony Arnel and described the GBCA as “recalcitrant and unresponsive.”
The result was that the Ministerial Council agreed to back the Victorian government’s approach and apply the policy nationally.
In the lead up to this meeting CFMEU Forestry and Furnishing Product Division National Secretary, Michael O’Connor, said the union was planning to make the issue a crucial one in upcoming state elections if state ministers didn’t deliver the required result.
Mr O’Connor said the GBCA’s refusal to recognise Australian forestry certification meant timber had to be sourced from overseas from countries where illegal and unsustainable logging had occurred.
“Domestic timber that is harvested according to sustainable world’s best practice must be able to compete with overseas products.
“The union is tired of seeing job losses around the country as a result of this unrepresentative organisation and its absurd accreditation system,” Mr O’Connor said.
“If we have to we will put pressure on state governments in ‘timber seats’ at upcoming elections, if our communities do not get co-operation on this most basic of issues.”
Following the latest round of pressure the GBCA has now announced it will divide the two accreditation points into two parts as from January 2010 – one point to be available from January 1 and the second point only after further review of the “significant criteria.”
The different certification systems
But why the different forestry certification schemes and what do they mean? There are two international forestry management schemes – the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Program for Endorsement of Forestry Certification (PEFC). They are vastly different in their philosophical underpinnings.
The FSC, according to Andrew Walker-Morison was developed in the early 90s out of a desire to reassure the community and purchasers about the sustainability of the product. It is supported by environmentalists and non- government organisations globally and has a set of global principles and criteria which determine and inform individual standards for regions and countries.
The PEFC was developed in the late 90s and is driven more by forestry and government interests; it recognises standards set by individual countries, such as the Australian Forestry Standard.
“In Australia there were people who wanted to set up under the FSC because the standards are very high but government and forestry interests quickly set up the Australian Forestry Standard which was subsequently recognised by the PEFC.
“The Australian Forestry Certification Scheme has a management overlay which is very useful as a management tool but for many performance requirements, such as protection of significant biodiversity values, it defers to state legislation. Time and again legislative protections has been found wanting by the science for conservation outcomes. They are after all a result of balancing political interests with often limited input from local stakeholders,” said Mr Walker-Morison.
While by no means a perfect system, said Mr Walker-Morison, the FSC has strict requirements that must satisfy stakeholders at three levels – economic, environmental and social. In Australia there is only an interim FSC standard operating at this stage.
“The FSC scheme is quite revolutionary. Previously governments had developed the standard but this is an independent scheme that must protect the interests of all stakeholders – government, milling companies, loggers, indigenous communities and environmentalists. And it has proved successful in putting to bed long running conflict and entrenched positions of loggers and environmentalists.”
In Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia, for example, loggers and environmentalists battled for years over redwood forests. Under the FSC scheme they eventually thrashed out a deal.
“Because the FSC scheme is consensus based the different parties have to come to agreement in the end. Until they do nobody makes a dollar. That is a very powerful way of ending conflict.
“What dismays me in Australia is that efforts to deliver that sort of process here are being undermined.
“The Green Building Council is driving change in the supply chain. It is not about preserving current standards but about pushing for higher ones. And it is not about loggers versus greenies but about getting outcomes for future generations,” said Mr Walker-Morison.
An example of how the GBCA’s accreditation system does drive change is the timber that was selected for the Melbourne Convention Centre. The timber used in the Six Green Star building, said Mr Walker-Morison, not only scored accreditation points, it came from a private Australian forest grower who went to great lengths to meet GBCA requirements.
Another Six Star building to receive the credit points by using Australian timber was Lend Lease’s The Gauge in Melbourne.
Professor Rod Keenan, director of the Victorian Centre for Climate Change at the University of Melbourne, and also a technical adviser to the GBCA in its review, says the FSC accreditation not only requires forestry certification but also chain of custody certification. This means that all contractors involved on a project must account for all timber that comes onto a project and that leaves it.
“From what I understand some of the big building contractors feel this is unduly penalising them as it imposes another level of costs and administrative requirements on them,” Professor Keenan said.
He said the key indicators used in both the FSC and AFS certification schemes are quite similar. The main differences of the schemes are the amount of wood conversion allowed from native to plantation forests, the use of genetically modified organisms and the use of pesticides. The FSC is strict on all three counts but does allow some use of pesticides under special circumstances, such as control of introduced species such as foxes and rabbits.
“It is fair to say that the FSC tries to ensure all stakeholders are satisfied while the ASF has a strong technical focus. What I think is now happening though is that there is something of a convergence of the two systems. AFS is aiming to bring in more of a community focus and FSC is trying to be more a bit more flexible.”
The Green Building Council of Australia announced today that it has revised the Timber credit effective January 1 2010. The main difference is that only one point will now be available for timber with the second point being deferred until further debate ensues.
To get the first point timber can come from either the AFS or FSC schemes but must meet five essential criteria incorporating:
- the assessment of chain of custody
- standards, development and revision
- auditing and certification decisions
- verification of legality
The remaining point hangs in the balance.
To get this second point timber will have to meet “significant criteria” to be determined after a period of public comment and debate. These criteria are:
- Public Reporting and Claims
- Biodiversity Conservation Part I
- High Conservation Value Forests (HCVF) Part I
- Chemical Use
- Forest Conversion to Plantations.
GBCA chief executive, Romilly Madew, told The Fifth Estate yesterday that the battle over timber credit points had been a difficult one. She said that industries such as vinyl and steel had taken the GBCA’s accreditation system very seriously and used it as a way of improving their processes to ensure a more sustainable product.
“We are hoping that the release of the revised Timber credit will clarify the issue and dispel any myths surrounding the review,” said Ms Madew.
“The revised Timber credit has the support of the Federal Government and moves away from the recognition of a single scheme to a principles-based approach where several schemes could be rewarded – as long as the essential criteria are met. This means that projects using timber from any scheme, including the AFS, will be eligible for points through this credit, so long as the scheme has applied for, and met, the essential criteria,” said Ms Madew.
The Fifth Estate – Sustainable Property News