When the U.S. Green Building Council released its first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard back in 1998, those involved couldn’t have foreseen how synonymous that four-letter acronym would become with green building worldwide. From residential homes to commercial high rises, master-planned developments to government buildings—and now, even fast food joints and casinos—LEED certification has emerged as the global leader in green building certifications, with more than 7,000 projects in the United States and 30 countries encompassing over 1.5 billion square feet of development area.
One unique attribute of the LEED system is that it’s a standard that has evolved over the years based on an open and transparent process. Periodically, the technical criteria by which a green building project may garner those all-important LEED points are proposed by USGBC members all over the country and publicly reviewed for approval by the almost 20,000 member branches of the organization.
Changes to these standards are in no way insignificant. Not unlike the way subtle changes in the rubric that Google uses to decide the order in which websites appear in response to a query on certain keywords, the way that the USGBC decides to award LEED points influences which green building products will face a surge in demand, and which ones are likely to be forgotten.
So when a organization as respected as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is making bones about the latest proposed changes to the USGBC’s LEED criteria, rest assured, they are changes likely to have an impact on the way the world buys wood.
According to the FSC, the third draft of LEED 2012 offers improvements but still falls short of its stated goal: driving market transformation to sustainability. The big shake-up is centered around Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools, which aim to reveal, through scientific research and a whole lot of calculations, exactly how much carbon a giving building material consumes over the course of its natural life, from the cradle, so to speak, to the grave.
Such tools, once the province of a few green-minded companies, have become widely available for manufacturers, much the same way that third-party testing is available to determine the energy efficiency of appliances or the gasoline efficiency of cars. But because different LCA tools vary in their results for the amount of carbon produced by the same products—based on the way they run their calculations—the FSC believes they shouldn’t be accepted in determining the relative greeness of any old building product.
The organization holds that if the new LEED standard is approved as written, it would represent a step backward from the current Certified Wood Credit, which it says has directly encouraged tens of millions of acres of forest conservation and responsible management in the United States and Canada. The basic idea here being that there’s nothing ambiguous about the virtues of wood as a green building material and FSC-certified wood as the leadership standard in sustainably managed timber.
By providing up to five points for use of life cycle assessment-based disclosure tools, the FSC holds, the proposed LEED 2012 standard reduces the incentives for compliance with high performance standards like FSC. You can learn more about the FSC’s concerns with the new standard here, and if you act fast can let the USGBC know what you think by weighing in during the period for public comment on the standard, which closes March 27.