Column: Upcoming EU timber regulations are two steps behind environmental reality

As published on The Journal.ie in March 2013

Following the proposed sell-off of harvesting rights on Coillte forests earlier this week – which the Irish Timber Council says could put as many as 2,500 jobs in jeopardy – Dermot McNally considers the fate of the forestry industry, upcoming regulations, and the demand for ethically-produced timber.

NEW EU TIMBER regulations will come into force this month. This badly needed piece of legislation prohibits placing timber on the EU market if it was illegally harvested. To achieve this end, the regulations set out procedures which any operator placing timber products onto the EU market for the first time must adhere to.

The obvious thing to point out is that the regulations don’t address the actual holistic environmental impact of timber as its makes its journey from forest, to processing, to final market. Take for example solid oak furniture – very fashionable in domestic cabinet furniture across the UK and Ireland. Much American Oak is harvested legally in the US, shipped to Asia for processing in factories and reshipped (with thick layers of polystyrene and cardboard packaging) into the UK and Irish markets. So while the example above is legal and traceable, timber products created in this way are creating a huge carbon footprint given the use of fossil fuels in shipping and packaging.

Truly sustainable forestry

That point aside, there are a host of weaknesses which belittle the regulations and will hamper efforts to achieve truly sustainable forestry management across the globe.

Firstly the certification process for timbers is varied by region and authority making compliance less transparent and less reliable. This facet is exacerbated by language barriers, the possibility of corruption, and a disappointing indifference by some national governments who are keen to facilitate their burgeoning domestic wood processors regardless of timber source.

Is there a chance that, without a watertight pan-national cross checking of “certificates of origin”, there could be a duplication of certificates; ie, a timber saw mill or a wood processor could give the same certificates to different customers – the chances of these certificates coming across the desk of the same enforcement agency are slim.

Enforcement is the next great unknown – will enforcement agents have adequate resources to do so? This is critical as failure to enforce the regulations thoroughly could be inviting dumping of timber products onto the UK and ROI markets as tough enforcement in other member states closes the outlet for uncertified timber products.

Will customers pay for ethically produced goods?

Where enforcement is haphazard or unlikely, firms stringently adhering to the rules will incur additional costs relative to their less ethical competitors. And the sad truth is, as most retailers will concur I’m sure, is that only a very small percentage of consumers will actually pay more for ethically produced goods.

The regulations state that “due diligence” should be used to try and to determine the source of the timbers in products, which from my reading commits the importer to try their “best” to guarantee the source. However the physical nature of timber make this very difficult; how can local enforcement officials assess the species type or quantity of timbers actually used in a piece of furniture without time consuming and expensive raw material testing?

Similarly how much timber can actually be used from a certified log and how much waste is there in a 15metre high Indonesian Mindi tree? Can we make 100 chairs or 500 chairs? Is it feasible that a proportion of the timber used in a chair is from a certified Mindi plantation but the rest is from a uncertified source? Who will be able to prove otherwise?

Holistic solution still a long way off

So with all these potential pit falls what is likely to happen in the UK and Ireland?

It’s possible that a high profile enforcement of sorts is likely as happened in the USA. The USA are a little ahead of Europe – they extended the Lacey Act to prohibit the placing of illegally harvested timbers into the USA in 2008. Gibson Guitars were raided by US officials in November 2009 and in August 2012 Gibson finally agreed to pay $600,000 for importing illegal Madagascan Rosewood. They also consented to confiscation of the same illegal timbers from their HQ in Nashville. Given the severity of the penalty, other US timber importers are likely to take note.

But for the time being at least the chopping, fudging and importing of illegally harvested timber is likely to continue; and a holistic solution to sustainable forestry management is still a long way off.

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