Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wood flooring’s role as a sustainable carbon storage container needs to be told.

Is hardwood flooring bad for the environment?  This is not a rhetorical question. 

I recently learned that in parts of Europe there exists a persistent belief that cutting down trees to make hardwood flooring is a waste of natural resources and bad for the environment.  The reason for this misconception, what is being done about it and what wood flooring manufacturers can do to promote the truth about the positive role of hardwood flooring in carbon storage are topics of this post; but first, some general information to set the stage. 

Trees are carbon storage containers and a primary tool in the process of carbon sequestration.  As trees grow they absorb carbon dioxide. They release the oxygen into the environment and sequester the carbon.  In fact, up to half of a tree’s dry weight is carbon. When timber is transformed into durable products, like flooring, the carbon remains in the wood and is transferred to the flooring which becomes a long-term carbon storage container (or “sink” in the vernacular) for the life of the floor.  In the parlance of international carbon storage protocols, durable goods made from forest products are called “harvested wood products” or HWP.   The transfer of carbon to HWP is a much studied and known scientific fact.

So what is the source of the misconception that harvesting trees for flooring is bad for the environment?

It starts with the Kyoto Protocol. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol  is a legally binding agreement under which industrialized countries agree to reduce their collective greenhouse emissions. It sets complex methods for tracking, counting and reporting those emissions.  This Protocol accounts for carbon storage in ecosystems only; forests and vegetation, soil, oceans, etc.  It does not count carbon stored in HWP, even though carbon storage in HWP was recognized at the time the Protocol was written. To make matters worse, the Protocol over simplified accounting for forest carbon storage and created the official default assumption that all carbon contained within a tree is released at the moment of harvesting. They knew that was not true then and they know that now but apparently for complex accounting reasons the protocol was devised this way. You can read a full explanation of this in Recognition of Carbon Storage in Harvested Wood Products -A Post-Copenhagen Update.

The unfortunate consequence is that no country counts or gets credit for HWP carbon storage; governments don’t promote it and consumers have never learned about the transfer of sequestered carbon from tree to finished wood products – i.e. flooring.

Despite 13 years of studies and discussions at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, the official protocol remains unchanged and continues as a source of misconception for those less informed.
This lingering misconception led some to believe that hardwood flooring is not an environmentally responsible choice; if left unchecked this belief could have a negative impact on the hardwood flooring industry. That is, unless flooring manufacturers join together to educate consumers about the true benefit of transferred carbon storage and the role that consumers themselves can play in carbon sequestration by purchasing hardwood flooring.

This possible threat to the wood flooring industry and the need for the wood flooring industry to educate our consumers are covered in an article I recently wrote for Floor Covering Weekly Global after returning from China where I moderated the Domotex International Wood Floor Summit. There, Mr. Jürgen Früchtenicht, president of the European Federation of Parquet Importers  addressed the group about his concerns that a growing segment of European consumers actually believed harvesting trees for wood flooring was bad for the environment. 

That resulting article evoked quite a discussion:

Thomas Baert, president of Chinafloors, has proposed that the international wood flooring industry join together to create and market a “Wood is Good” story. He suggests that flooring manufacturers might contribute to a fund to create a message and logo that promotes wood as the responsible product of choice for the environmentally conscious consumer and also explain how buying wood flooring transfers carbon from trees to their floors. His thinking is inspired by the effectiveness of the World Wildlife Fund’s giant panda logo.

Mike Snow, executive director of the American Hardwood Export Council, says the AHEC is commissioning what may be "the most extensive Life Cycle Assessment ever done for wood products" and placing major funding behind bringing real scientific data to the debate.  This scientific data could be used in the formulation of a consumer oriented marketing program.

Mark Hayes of Weyerhaeuser Hardwoods and Industrial Products believes “we must be vigilant against any voice or regulation that portrays wood as anything other than positive for the environment” and he encourages more dialog within the wood products industries on this point.

Ed Korczak, director the National Wood Flooring Association, explains that NWFA’s Responsible Procurement Program  and the U.S. Lacey Act assure buyers that the wood used to make flooring is harvested legally.  Früchtenicht points out that both Europe's FLEGT legislation and the Lacey Act target the legality of wood and not its sustainability or environmental attributes.  While these laws do not address the issue of carbon sequestration or the role of hardwood flooring they nevertheless should be part of the bigger picture that is cast for the consumer.

As one wood products group preparing for the Copenhagen summit so aptly promoted: “HWP is the only sustainable carbon capture and storage technology available.” The wood flooring industry has a wonderful environmental story to tell and it needs to be told before false impressions become set in the consumers’ minds.  Perceptions, true or not, become realities that are difficult to alter: “Wear a hat or you will catch a cold,” was probably spread by hat manufacturers and accepted as gospel for generations.

I hope that Thomas Baert’s suggestion to work together to promote the benefits of wood is taken up by the international wood flooring manufacturers and a positive consumer marketing story is adopted so that the train of misconception currently idling in Europe never leaves the station.

I think this is an important discussion and encourage you to contribute your thoughts by commenting below.  Thank you for reading.

Jim

Jim Gould is President of the Floor Covering Institute

To post a comment simply click on "comment" below.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Jim

    I'm not sure that Europe is quite as ignorant to the principles of carbon sequestration and sustainability of wood as you suggest.

    The FSC is widely recognised and many customers ask that wood flooring be supplied from FSC approved sources.

    An issue I have a particular gripe with is the transportation of oak flooring from China and the Far East into Europe, burning enormous amounts of fossil fuel to cover the huge distances.

    We have plentiful, well managed forests in Europe which should more than meet local demand - the workers are paid a fair wage too!

    Adrian

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  2. Adrian,
    Thank you for your feedback. I apologize if anyone thinks my article said that Europeans are ignorant about the environment. In fact they are much more knowledgable than Americans. The post was intended to raise awareness about a possible threat before it grows past the small group that currently holds a misperception. I would like to see the industry address this threat so that wood flooring is seen for the positive environmental product that it is.
    Jim

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  3. No need to take panic. Hardwood flooring is made by reclaimed wood.you still have a net carbon dioxide reduction of over 500 Kg for the average installation. The more flooring you install, the more carbon is saved. Far from being bad for the environment, wood flooring from carefully managed forests is a benefit; it helps reduce the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Not by a staggering amount - we can't save the world by shunning carpets, more's the pity. But as with anything, even small savings and subtle changes in lifestyle could make all the difference in the long term.

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