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Forest Stewardship Council certification does not guarantee reduced forest carbon emissions

A recent study in East Kalimantan revealed no difference in carbon emissions between Forest Stewardship Council certified logging operations and conventional logging concessions.

This has potentially huge implications for REDD. “Sustainable management of forest” is one of the “plus” parts of REDD as agreed in December 2010 in Cancun. “Sustainable management of forest” could mean subsidies to industrial-scale commercial logging operations in old-growth forests.

The findings of the recent study also have serious implications for the Forestry Stewardship Council which is expanding its certification system to include forest carbon.

The Forest Stewardship Council was formed in 1993, with the aim of promoting environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest management. It does so through a certification system. An FSC accredited “certifying body” assesses whether the company’s forestry concession complies with a series of FSC principles and criteria.

FSC has a controversial record, as a result of its certification of monoculture tree plantations and destructive logging operations, and its failure to hold its certifying bodies to account. Perhaps the biggest problem is that when a certifying body assesses a company, it is paid to do so by the company. There is a clear incentive for the certifying body to turn a blind eye to the company’s shortcomings.

Greenpeace, which is a member of FSC, describes the FSC system “at risk” and notes that “many of the FSC’s on-the-ground performance criteria are either weak, under threat of being weakened, or not properly implemented”.

In 2009, FSC formed a Forest Carbon Working Group, which produced a “Strategic Framework for an FSC® Climate Change Engagement” in November 2012. FSC sees certifying forest carbon as a potential growth area for the organisation. The report includes a series of “objectives” and “goals” for FSC. One of these goals is that,

FSC is recognized by credible forest carbon schemes in order to facilitate and lead participants towards FSC certification.

But what if FSC certified logging operations don’t actually reduce emissions? In a new study, Bronson Griscom and Peter Ellis of The Nature Conservancy and Jack Putz of the University of Florida, look at nine logging operations in East Kalimantan. Three of the concessions are FSC certified, six are not.

Instead of taking random plots in the concessions, Griscom and colleagues followed bulldozer tracks and studied the damage logging operations caused in the forest. They measured the width of logging trails and roads and measured how much biomass was cleared to make way for them. They estimated how many other trees were felled or damaged when a tree was logged.

In the abstract to the paper, Griscom, Ellis and Putz write that,

We found that concessions certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC, N = 3), when compared with noncertified concessions (N = 6), did not have lower overall CO2 emissions from logging activity (felling, skidding, and hauling).

Mongabay’s Rhett Butler sums up the importance of this research:

[T]he results cast doubt on whether reduced impact logging should receive payments under REDD+. Griscom and colleagues argue that simple fixes could result in real emissions reductions, but the question is whether these fixes will be actually implemented on the ground, especially in poorly-monitored concessions like those studied in Kalimantan.

Corey Bradshaw, Professor of Ecological Modelling at the University of Adelaide, told Mongabay:

“It’s insane to consider ‘lower-emission’ logging at all considering the forests, no matter the disturbance, are never able to retain as much carbon or biodiversity as primary forests.

Bradshaw refers to a 2011 paper that he co-wrote, that was published in Nature. The paper, titled, “Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity”, uses a meta-analysis of 138 peer-reviewed studies. “Absolutely nothing can replace the value of primary forest,” Bradshaw told Mongabay.

Bill Laurence, a Professor at the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University, was also a co-author of the 2011 Nature paper. On the ALERT website, Laurence writes that,

Indonesia alone has at least 35 million hectares of selectively logged forest – an area larger than Germany – and much of this logged forest is unprotected and being cleared for agriculture.

Laurence told Mongabay,

“Rather than trying to use REDD+ funds to lower carbon emissions from logging, I’d rather see such funds used to purchase previously logged forests or to protect them from conversion.”

This makes sense. But it means going back on what was agreed in Cancun – the plus part of REDD includes “Sustainable management of forests”.

Meanwhile, REDD-Monitor looks forward to FSC’s response to Briscom, Ellis and Putz’s study. It presents a serious problem for FSC’s Forest Carbon Working Group. On its website, FSC claims that,

FSC ensure [sic] forest stewardship that considers the impact of management regimes on forest carbon cycles and aims at maintaining, restoring or enhancing forest carbon resources.

Briscom, Ellis and Putz’s study shows that this statement is not necessarily true. The fact that a logging concession has been certified under the FSC system is not a guarantee that the logging operation has resulted in reduced forest carbon emissions compared to conventional logging.

PHOTO Credit: Logging track in Berau, November 2013.

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  1. Thanks to REDD Monitor for a thoughtful review of our paper. We (Ellis and Griscom), share Laurence and Bradshaw’s passion for old growth forests, and agree that their protection is paramount. However, in commercial logging concessions (over 20% of the world’s tropical forest overall), we remain optimistic about improved forest management – taken together, FSC and RIL-C offer a solution to the pressing challenges of topical forest conservation, climate change mitigation, and human well-being, because:

    1) There is growing evidence that timber concessions can prevent forest loss (Gaveau et al. 2013), as well as or better than protected areas, and managed forests retain more than 80% of their biodiversity (Putz et al. 2012).

    2) Simple yet robust measurement methods are emerging for verifying emissions reductions from RIL-C practices, and conservationists and loggers alike are taking an interest. (

    3) The alternative to selective logging is conversion to exotic tree plantations. We think FSC and RIL-C-certified selective logging provides a better path to balancing timber production, rural development, water quality, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration:

  2. The same study also concludes that the ‘three FSC-certified concessions performed better than all of the other six noncertified concessions both in terms of overall ranks and for each of the skidding indicators’ and ‘mean timber harvest volume per ha was 30% lower in certified than noncertified concessions’. These concessions achieved a measurable impact despite at least 4 significantly different RIL “standards” (the Legal, the Elias (a local Professor), the TNC and the TFF “standards”) and 5 different FSC Interim Standards for Indonesia. Despite the confusion and apathy due to these various standards, these 3 forest managers make a measurable difference!
    However, we must be very careful with sweeping statements about FSC based on 3 concessions in East-Kalimantan only, especially given the many variables in the study: elevation, harvesting intensity, logging method, etc, etc, etc.

  3. As has been alluded to, part of the point of FSC certification is protection of forests from conversion to more intensive uses like monoculture plantations (I’m thinking of oil palm plantations in particular), or grazing pasture for livestock. It seems to me to be somewhat of a misreading of the intent of FSC certification to think it claims to reduce carbon emissions. Also, it is my understanding that a big part of RIL is improving working conditions – especially important when workers are hired from local communities (which is a good thing!). Personally, I wouldn’t expect to see lower carbon emissions from FSC or RIL, but I would expect to see better conservation and working conditions.