The important recognition that climate change requires NZ to develop low-emissions areas of its economy, clearly justifies recognition of NZ sourced wood-based building products as ‘green’. However, consumers wishing to build green should look carefully at whether tangible benefits are provided by rating schemes that verify a building's "green" credentials.
Here at Farm Forestry Timbers we stand by locally produced specialty timber as having the highest green credentials of any building material. Unfortunately the Green Building Council's materials rating scheme does not provide an environmental incentive to use sustainably managed, locally grown specialty timbers in green building projects.
Forests and timber - the domestic situation
The existing high standard of forest management in NZ is controlled by legislation and is among the best in the world*. Compliance comes at considerable cost to growers and producers of timber. Further compliance with overseas third party certification groups (FSC, PEFC) is not only unnecessary, but it also reduces the ability of local producers to compete successfully against imported timber, especially timber from countries with lower environmental and employment standards.
Environmental benefits of forests and timber
Forests provide many environmental benefits to society. These include improved water quality and reduced soil erosion, along with landscape, biodiversity and recreational values. Healthy forests in critical catchments reduce flood damage downstream and therefore reduce the cost to society from such events. By encouraging the use of locally produced timber and timber products, these wider environmental values are recognised.
Unlike other building materials, wood is a renewable product. This is in direct contrast to concrete and steel, where the raw materials are mined from limited resources. Forests offer soil, water, recreation and biodiversity benefits that non-wood products do not. Forestry and wood processing is a significant source of sustainable local employment. Wood processing even utilises substantial amounts of wood residue for renewable bioenergy.
When timber reaches the end of its useful life, it will eventually decay and return the previously stored carbon back to the atmosphere in a process of recycling, driven by solar energy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fourth assessment report states that “A sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit”.
Our NZ-grown specialty timbers are the ultimate renewable material and have specific properties such as natural durability and strength, adding to their green credentials.
NZ Green Building Council's materials rating system and timber
The NZ Green Building Council provide an authentication scheme for design of buildings with a reduced environmental impact via a rating tool.
Timber used in construction can achieve a maximum of 3 points in the GBC rating tool. One point is available for "responsibly sourced" timber. This means the timber must be from certified sustainably managed forests (FSC or PEFC). Two points are available where it can be demonstrated that the new timber products have a reduced environmental impact and one point is available where it is demonstrated that the timber has "reduced toxicity".
This system fails growers and producers of specialty timbers in New Zealand. A locally grown naturally durable timber will be awarded a maximum of 1 point, for "reduced toxicity". Not a single grower of naturally durable timbers is deemed a "responsible source" because none are certified as sustainably managed by FSC or PEFC. This is because smaller growers of specialty timber in New Zealand would incur excessive compliance costs to become certified (because of economies of scale). In contrast, imported FSC/PEFC certified naturally durable timber from large-scale rainforest destruction would earn 2 points. Third party environmental certification is unnecessary and unrealistic for smaller local growers who undisputedly practice good stewardship of their land. This is counterproductive for environmental sustainability, given New Zealands strict legislative requirements*.
GBC's materials rating system is also inequitable between materials:
- The renewable nature of wood is not recognised in the rating system, while recycling is recognised for non-renewable materials such as concrete and steel. For equity across these products timber should always achieve recognition for being renewable and automatically gain points on that basis.
- Locally produced timber produces a minimal carbon footprint. Unfortunately life-cycle analysis is not used by GBC in their rating system. Life-cycle analysis is essential to determine the relative merits of different materials when assessing environmental impact. By choosing to ignore this in their rating tools, materials with a high carbon footprint like concrete and steel are favoured.
To summarise, the GBC's current materials rating scheme does not reflect a consistent approach to environmental assessment of different and competing construction materials. There needs to be equivalence between competing construction materials for the scheme to be reputable.
New Zealand and third party environmental certification
Wood from New Zealand forests is sustainably grown and processed in accordance with the Resource Management Act and other New Zealand legislation*. Unlike other countries with poor environmental track records and employment laws, locally-produced timber is responsibly sourced. Imposing environmental certification requirements on our forest growers is unnecessary and does not represent a positive environmental return, just increased costs for building.
Local communities depend on local renewable resources, employment and local trade, all critically important components of sustainability. Unfortunately there has been an increase in imported forest products with four times more imports into New Zealand in 2007 than 1990. Much of this continues to come from unsustainable and illegal logging practices and deforestation of natural rainforest with resulting cheap timber supplies. Local growers cannot compete with such destructive practices. We'd like to turn this around with clear consumer awareness of the green credentials of locally produced specialty timber. Unfortunately the GBC rating tools currently provide no such "green" incentive to the consumer.
The alternative supply, from imported timber, including certified tropical hardwoods, is far more likely to be from practices destructive to the natural environment and produced under much poorer conditions than practiced by NZ farm foresters. Certification schemes must deliver real change in forest management to be considered successful. Unfortunately, many schemes are failing to do this; buyers should beware of greenwash when considering certified wood products. A recent report found that some forestry green certification schemes:
- Failed to protect forest values such as key habitats and endangered ecosystems.
- Failed to consider adequately the needs of local and indigenous communities dependent on forests.
- Failed to prevent the conversion of natural ecosystems to industrial tree plantations.
The study concludes that forest certification does not necessarily provide the reassurance that certified forests and products are being managed sustainably. Buyers of these products are at risk of purchasing products that do not meet the ecological and social standards they could reasonably expect when purchasing a ‘certified' product.
For example Greenpeace recently condemned FSC for ignoring human rights violations in the Congo. Certification is having little impact on the environmental devastation logging is having on Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, both major sources of hardwood timber coming into New Zealand.
In contrast consumers can be assured that buying our New Zealand grown specialty timbers supports a vibrant community of ethical producers.
The Fair Trading Act and environmental claims made by Green Building Council
Environmental claims must comply with the Fair Trading Act. The publication 'The Fair Trading Act - Guidelines for Green Marketing' is available for download from the Commerce Commission website under Guidelines for Green Marketing. These guidelines encourage businesses and marketers to be honest, to specify which part of the product or process the green claim is made about and to use language consumers can understand. Likewise, businesses and marketers should explain the significance of the green claim and ensure that any claim can be substantiated. Consumers have a right to accurate information on which to base their purchasing decisions.
The GBC rating tools "assess the environmental impact" resulting from a buildings site selection, design, construction, and maintenance. The framework has categories which contain credits to address initiatives or products that improve or have the "potential to improve a buildings environmental performance". Each category is weighted "to reflect the different environmental impacts". The GBC claims these tools set standards of best practice through environmental rating. Consumers have the right to accurate information about such claims, yet the GBC's website has no specific information about how materials are assessed for relative environmental performance. Those relying on the GBC Greenstar rating tool can only trust that this is not just a form of product or brand promotion.
In the absence of accurate information on assessment methods for relative environmental impacts, a rating tool becomes merely a form of product or brand promotion. Environmental performance should be determined by scientific and empirical evidence and wood is well recognised as an environmentally preferable building material. The clear environmental credentials of locally produced specialty timber are well ahead of any other material yet these are not recognised by GBC's rating scheme.
*Forests are managed sustainably in New Zealand under the Resource Management Act, National Environmental Standards and a NZ code of practice. Under the Forests Act, indigenous timber can only be produced from forests managed in a way that maintains continuous forest cover and ecological balance. Legislation, along with the long standing positive relationship between the NZ forest industry and environmental interests, who together recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the signing of the New Zealand Forest Accord, provide the foundations for sustainable management of New Zealand's forests.
New Zealand not only has comprehensive legislation governing environmental requirements, but also health and safety and employment, law and order and conservation, which along with District and Regional plans that extend the provisions of the Resource Management Act, provide more specific environmental protections.
Disclaimer: While every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information provided on this site, Farm Forestry Timbers Society do not accept liability for any consequences arising from reliance on the information published. If readers have any doubts about acting on any articles they should seek confirming, professional advice.