An independent observer of the Forest Stewartship Council

Exporting the FSC 'model' to biofuels?Tags: Worldwide, Biofuels

FSC-Watch was interested to learn recently that FSC Executive Director, Heiko Liedeker, has joined the Steering Board of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), which is based in the Federal Polytechnic (EPFL), Lausanne, Switzerland.

According to its website, the newly established RSB "is a multi-stakeholder initiative to develop international standards for sustainable biofuels production and processing, hosted by the Energy Center at EPFL. The Roundtable will bring together non-governmental organizations, companies, governments, inter-governmental organizations, experts, and other concerned parties to draft principles and criteria to ensure that biofuels deliver on their promise of sustainability."

Liedeker will be joined on the Steering Board of the RSB by luminaries including Claude Martin, former Director General of WWF (under whose leadership WWF moved ever closer to the interests of the corporate sector); Rolf Hartl, of the Federation of Swiss Oil Companies; and Rebecca Heaton of BP.

Followers of the FSC will recognise the RSB's proposed modus operandi. Liedeker, who has consistently talked away the failures of FSC as being mere 'teething problems', repeatedly saying that 'FSC will do better in future', will no doubt find much common ground with another of his new colleagues on the RSB Steering Board, Christopher Frei. Frei is Director for Energy Industries & Strategy at the World Economic Forum, the meeting point for the world's most powerful businesses and government leaders. Frei has dismissed some of serious problems with biofuels, saying that "Clearly, competition with food agriculture and sustainable production schemes are potentially problematic. However, these cannot be the true obstacles, as they can be addressed, for example by a labeling approach similar as used with bio-food, wood (Forest Stewardship Council), fish (Marine Stewardship Council), etc."

Regular readers of FSC-Watch will no doubt be alarmed at the suggestion that the obscene prospect of what George Monbiot has described as 'feeding cars instead of people', can be dismissed simply by using a certification scheme such as the FSC. The miserable failure of FSC to really guarantee sustainable (or even legal) forestry, should be a major lesson when considering how to ensure that biofuels become part of the solution, not part of an even bigger problem. The transfer of FSC's serious structural weaknesses into the certification of even more complex and opaque commodity markets such as soya beans and palm oil is to invite disaster.

George Monbiot has also described the pretence by governments that they are tackling climate change through the increased use of biofuels as 'plain fraud'. Using an FSC-type approach to 'certification' of biofuels could become a central part of this fraud.


Dear FSC Watch,

My name is Charlotte Opal and I am coordinating the new multi-stakeholder Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels. Our hope is to create a standards tool to both ensure that unsustainable biofuels do not enter the market, and to reward production of biofuels that promote rural development and landscape restoration, for instance encouraging the use of already degraded land and crops like jatropha that can restore soils, as well as supporting small-farmer organizations.

We formally announced our Steering Board in mid-April, and in addition to the members you mention here, individuals from environmental and social NGOs from Mali, Brazil, and India are members, as well as academics from Japan and California, and employees of the Swiss and Dutch governments and the UN Conference on Trade and Development. None of these individuals represents their organization or even their sector, rather they have volunteered as individuals to bring their experience to create a system of principles and criteria to ensure that biofuels deliver on their promise of sustainability.

One of the benefits of starting today is that we can learn from all of the experiences of those who have gone before, including FSC and other standards (my own background is with Fair Trade certification). We hope that all civil society actors affected by the rapid growth of biofuels will share their experience with other schemes through our Working Groups, which are open to anyone to participate. We hope that you and your network will get involved in the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels to ensure that we deliver the best standards we can. You can sign up for our Working Groups and learn more about what we hope to achieve on our website, http://EnergyCenter.epfl.ch/Biofuels.


Charlotte Opal

Dear FSC Watch, dear Charlotte,

To be honest, I am afraid you are both missing the point.

What is the problem with biofuels? Well, there are some, but one important is that they are ineffcient in their use of agricultural products and thus put high pressure on existing arable land. Agriculture must expand to feed this demand.

In some cases, this will directly lead to conversion of natural forests, e.g. in Argentina about 20 mln hectares of forests are under threat to be replaced by soy to export biodiesel.
In many other cases, in will indirectly lead to deforestation. This will be the case with further expansion of sugar cane in Brazil which will push cattle and soy into the Amazon. In Indonesia oil palm plantation will continue to expand by converting primary forests.

Will certification be able to stop or even adress this indirect impact on forests? No, it will not. Reason: existing certification systems are designed to assess on site-level; indirect impact on macro-level is not assessable.

So, FSC Watch and the RSB are discussing the credibility of certification system. But, although this is important, it is not the most important point for biofuels. Even if new or old certification systems for biofuels are credible, they would certify a certain crop as 'green' or 'sustainable' while at the same time the certified plantation is, indirectly, leading to deforestation.

Conclusion: on-site assessment is a necessary element of strict sustainability criteria for biofuels but does not provide all the answers. Assessment on macro-level is crucial. This demands a different type of thinking.

Indonesian palm oil is a good test case. The sector is expanding in a way that sustainable palm oil simply cannot exist. Thus, it is not certifiable, while the RSPO will proudly present its first certification soon, greenwash the bad image of palm oil and facilitate further expansion (into the forests) as there is nothing and no-one that stops it. How will the RSB deal with this question?

My suggestion is that governments in consumer countries immediately stop supporting all biofuels (and biomass for energy, too) that does not meet strict sustainability criteria - on site-level and on macro-level.

With kind regards,
Wolfgang Richert

Co-ordinator Bioenergy
Greenpeace International

Dear Wolfgang

Thank you for your very interesting contribution.

You say that "Assessment [of the impact of biofuels] on macro-level is crucial. This demands a different type of thinking".

We agree very much with this - and in fact the same is absolutely true of the impacts of the timber industry on forests. It is one of the major failings of the FSC certification system, that it only looks at the 'Forest Management Unit' level.

Can you please say what Greenpeace International's position is concerning this failing in the FSC system?



Having been active in the long-running timber plantations certification debate in South Africa for several years, it worries me that even the most obvious shortcomings in respect of FSC's certification of destructive large-scale tree monocultures are still not getting proper recognition.

The fundamental issue here is the inherent incompatibility of the original 9 FSC FOREST certification principles with the needs of any system to assess and rate industrial tree plantations in terms of best management practice for certification purposes.

Industrial tree plantations (rubber, timber, pulpwood, palm-oil, agrofuels, etc) are the antithesis of FORESTS, and as we are all aware, constitute what is probably one of the greatest contributors to FOREST (and grassland) destruction or degradation.

It is these same industrial plantations that bring several new environmental evils into hitherto unspoilt natural landscapes - the use of toxic insecticides and herbicides; surface and ground-water depletion; invasion by plantation trees and other introduced alien weeds; negative impacts to soils, through nutrient depletion, compaction and erosion; the potential for contamination by genetically engineered trees; destructive wildfires resulting from inappropriate management practices, over-exploited workers, and the dehydration of surrounding vegetation, are not an issue in the sustainable utilisation of FOREST resources.

Similarly, most social problems that are part and parcel of changes in land-use to industrial plantations (displacement, disease and dissent) are not normally an issue when it comes to FORESTS that are managed to ensure that they are socially, environmentally and economically sustainable.

In my opinion, the FSC system which was instituted in order to address FOREST destruction and degradation, appears to have been systematically 'gerrymandered' by economic sector interests into a timber-product marketing vehicle that is increasingly ineffective in terms of meeting the objectives of sustainable and equitable FOREST resource management.

Full recognition of and attention to these shortcomings by FSC is intrinsic to finding a solution to the challenges it is now facing. Through its continuing failure to address the urgency of the need to resolve the plantation related problems in Chile, Brasil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Thailand, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, India etc. etc. FSC is inviting the collapse of the one system that has the potential to protect the FORESTS of the world. If the FSC desperately needs to continue to operate as a vendor and certificator of a best practice plantation management system, then it needs to accept that as with monoculture crops for agrofuel production there needs to be an agreed stand-alone set of principles, standards and criteria in place for that purpose.

There really is no alternative.

Wally Menne
Timberwatch Coalition
South Africa

Dear Wolfgang,

I agree with your "suggestion that governments in consumer countries should stop supporting all biofuels (and biomass for energy, too) that does not meet strict sustainability criteria - on site-level and on macro-level".

As there do not exist such strict sustainibility criteria for agrofuels (and maybe will never exist), why did Greenpeace not sign the letter for a 5 year moratorium on agrofuels in EU as about 190 NGOs from all over the world did?

All the best


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