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'LEED is a laggard, rather than a leader': SFI CEO

The green building standard by which the City of Vancouver and hundreds of other municipalities measure the environmental performance of new construction is falling behind rival green building standards in the way it rates wood, according to the CEO of the world’s largest forest certification program.

“The vast majority of rating tools around the world do recognize multiple forestry certification standards, do look at multiple attributes where wood gets its fair share,” Kathy Abusow, President and CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), told the U.S.-based group’s annual conference in Vancouver on Wednesday.

Abusow named the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) and Built Green Canada among emerging standards that recognize the environmental benefits of wood, with less emphasis on of how that wood was grown and harvested.

The American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) green building standards, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) standard for high-performance buildings, and certain American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards are among other organizations that recognize wood certified by SFI and other certifiers.

“However, the USGBC’s [U.S. Green Building Council] LEED standard recognizes only FSC [Forest Stewardship Council],” said the president of SFI, a rival program.

“It’s pretty clear that LEED is an outlier, that LEED is a laggard rather than a leader when it comes to wood recognition and forest certification,” Abusow said.

Abusow briefed her members on the latest rounds in the long struggle between the two leading forest certification programs.

Her organization, SFI, which has roots in the forest products industry, is engaged in a bitter struggle with the rival FSC, which has roots in the environmental movement, for access to the LEED standard, which is set by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Abusow described the U.S. Green Building Council’s position this way:

“They [the USGBC] recognize they certainly have created a gap that they can’t explain anymore… They understand that they need to have some criteria to explain why they have this position.

“And so for five years we’ve been painfully waiting for them to come out with this criteria. And we’re now in our fourth round of benchmarks. And what they’ve demonstrated is that they are experts in process and not yet at the outcome stage.”

The SFI president described her organization's position this way:

“We believe that wood use should be encouraged for the variety of environmental attributes that it carries.

“And so we don’t think forest certification is a starting point. We think that forest certification is an additional recognition factor. Because when you look at green building tools like LEED, what you see is that substitute materials --- such as steel, concrete and others --- don’t have any third-party certification [required].

“It’s a double-standard. Other building materials don’t need third-party certification. … yet wood… needs to jump through 49 mandatory benchmarks before it will considered for one credit under LEED.

“When you consider that you can put in a bicycle rack and a shower and get that same credit, you know there’s something wrong with that.”

Governors of 12 U.S. states along with 79 members of the U.S. Congress have joined SFI's effort to lobby the U.S. Green Building Council to include all forest certification standards – including SFI as well as FSC – in the LEED criteria. (Though the Canadian Green Building Council administers LEED in this country, the U.S. counterpart sets the standards.)

Abusow noted that organizations including the United Nations have commented on the problematic nature of wood certification.

“The United Nations report pointed out that green building initiatives can be a mixed blessing for wood products,” Abusow said. “It also goes on to say that exclusive recognition of one forest certification program may drive demand for that brand at the expense of wider appreciation of the environmental benefits of wood.”

Abusow did offer a few conciliatory thoughts about LEED, if not FSC.

“I think USGBC and LEED are good programs. They are good in that they raise awareness of the need for green building. And a lot of people value it for the energy efficiency aspects,” she said.

“We can all agree that green building is positive. It means many different things to many different people. We believe forest certification is just one aspect that needs to be considered in green building. We don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all.”

The USGBC is expected to release a fourth round of draft regulations this fall.

Monte Paulsen writes for The Tyee, and is a contributor to the series 'How Green is Your Wood?'

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