Q&A: SBP: What’s New & Next

Appointing its first, full-time CEO, Carsten Huljus, is just one step in the Sustainable Biomass Partnership’s transition to an established certification system.
By Katie Fletcher | January 16, 2017

How did you come into this recently established SBP leadership role?

The position found me. I was managing director of a certification body (CB) focusing on Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes for the past 14 years, and it was clearly a good fit for me. I would no longer be a service provider for a certification system, but I’d change sides of the desk. You could also say, it’s a natural step in my career to move to an organization that is now using CBs to assess SBP standards compliance. In addition, SBP has taken a very innovative approach compared to many other certification systems out there. It’s not a closed box, but it’s integrated other forest certification systems into its own system, and it’s building on top of these. I think that is how certification systems will work in the future, rather than doing everything by themselves.

The appointment of the CEO role marks the transition of SBP into a fully operational entity. Before, when SBP was founded in 2013, SBP was set up as a standard-setting body and now that the standards are established, it’s transitioning into an established certification system and it needs a strong leading role to kick it off. If you move such an organization from a standard-setting body into an operational body, you need strong relationships with all of your stakeholders, particularly those who the standards impact; all of the biomass supply chain actors, trade associations, policymakers and environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and up to now, SBP didn’t really have a role dedicated to that. But now, through establishing the role of CEO, SBP does, and that has been very helpful over the past six months for interacting with the different players.

How is SBP ensuring that the voice of stakeholders is taken into account?

SBP appointed an independent advisory board in 2015, made up of 10 members who meet twice a year, and they help SBP and especially the SBP board to view what’s happening in the woody biomass sector. In addition, during the course of 2016, we have completely revised our working group structure, taking on specific, technical challenges in implementing standards, for example. At the time I joined SBP, it was a very closed operation and we have opened it up to incorporate a variety of stakeholders from the supply chain. One result was that the SBP stakeholder committee was established to oversee the working group activities and the outcomes from these working groups before these go to the board for final approvals. The stakeholder committee currently has representatives from pellet and wood chip producers, biomass traders, CBs and relevant trade associations and, of course, SBP member companies. We have also reserved seats for relevant international NGOs and, in the course of 2017, we want to invite NGOs to join.

SBP is very much willing to engage with all of its stakeholders and considers such engagement and exchange of views to be the essential part of our certification system and the process to maintain and to promote it. SBP has a very direct line of communication with active stakeholders. In the worst case scenario, SBP also has a formal complaint procedure in place, so if any stakeholder is unhappy with anything happening or deemed happening with SBP, they can formally reach out to us and be heard.

It is the desire of SBP members for SBP to eventually transform into a multistakeholder owned and governed organization. Can you speak to the future governance of SBP and the steps to get there?

In October, the SBP board officially communicated its intent to transform SBP into a multistakeholder owned and governed organization. The ultimate aim is for the ownership and governance to become a balanced multistakeholder organization with its board comprising, corresponding and appropriating stakeholder representation in a balanced way. When the founding members set up SBP in 2013, it was established as a nonprofit company owned and fully funded by its members, all of whom use woody biomass for large-scale energy production. This was very convenient at the time because it removed all of the initial concerns about funding, leaving the SBP free to focus on establishing a fully operational certification system and, in time, taking steps toward becoming self-funded.

What happened on the SBP side is that the SBP’s independent advisory board recommended the board explore the possibility of opening the governance system and moving from where we are now into having a multistakeholder governance system. What we now need to do is develop an understanding of what multistakeholder governance actually means for us. If you talk to different people, they have very different answers to this, so our approach is to look at the existing certification systems that claim they are multistakeholder governed to compare and produce a white paper to discuss with our stakeholders, our advisory board and our board throughout the course of 2017.

SBP has made some reality checks on its progress and established goals toward improving them in 2017. Can you discuss bottlenecks currently being addressed that caused any under-goal realities?

Our focus is currently on quality decision making, and we’re already beginning to see that the time it takes from audit to issuing a certificate is reduced, so this is a positive step and there is scope for further improvement. In addition to this, our plan is to design, develop and implement a training program for auditors to also assist this quality approach.

I think one of the major activities to mention here is that in August 2016, SBP got into an agreement with Accreditation Services International, a third-party independent accreditation provider, and agreed that ASI will take over the management of the SBP accreditation and assurance program, which is a very helpful step to becoming fully independent, and it brings us in line with other well-recognized certification systems. In comparison to many other certification systems out there, and I’ve been in this sector for quite a long time, they’ve taken years—three, five, eight years—to establish where they are now and to implement a good working certification system. If you look at the track record of SBP, being founded in 2013 and one-and-a-half years later having issued the first standards, I can only say that SBP really has achieved a great deal in a very short period. Nevertheless, it’s clear that SBP is still in a startup position and that the first steps are always quite bumpy for all of the processes to work and to become fully embedded into a very routine system.

What are the changes to the SBP assurance program, and how will these changes impact the role of SBP?

The key changes in the SBP system result from the agreement that we have reached with ASI. The plan is that our six approved CBs have until the end of 2017 to transition over to the ASI accreditation program for SBP certification. Currently, they are approved by SBP, but ultimately, they will need to be accredited by ASI if they wish to continue to provide SBP certification services. Right now, I’m pleased to confirm that all six of our SBP-approved CBs have applied for ASI accreditation. These are very positive changes to SBP and to the SBP system, especially enhancing the independence and credibility of SBP as a robust certification system. It gives us the opportunity to focus on our core mission, which is to engage with our stakeholders and to manage and to maintain the standards independent from the activities of accreditation and certification.

What can people expect from the upcoming publishing of SBP’s strategy and first annual report?

The strategy mirrors what we currently do. It mainly defines the scope of the SBP system and we divided this scope into specific subscopes, so we have defined that the feedstock we want to focus on is wood and the commodities that we want to focus on are woody biomass in the form of pellets and wood chips. The application of SBP certification is designed in such a way that it can be implemented worldwide so we are not limiting ourselves geographically. Any producer or any trader of pellets or wood chips anywhere in the world can be SBP certified.

One of the major reasons SBP was set up was to address regulatory compliance by providing a tool to demonstrate it. Our focus within the current strategy is that SBP standards cover regulatory compliance in Europe.  The scope of certificate holders is set out for pellet and wood chip producers and traders. Other systems would also cover and certify the transport and maybe the retailers, but this is not yet our focus. SBP doesn’t limit the end use of SBP-certified material, so for example, SBP-certified pellets could be used by any person or organization. Another topic that we want to look at is trademarks. Right now, SBP is very strongly focused in business-to-business so there is no use of trademarks or logos in an on-product way, but it’s not excluded from our strategy. We plan to develop procedures to apply on-product claims and on-product trademarks. So, if, for example, you sell pellets per sack you could use the SBP logo on it. One of the last topics that the strategy covers is our relationship with other certification systems, such as FSC, PEFC, Sustainable Forestry Initiative and ENplus. We would like to engage with these systems to find a mutual cooperation or at least to work together on a standard-setting level.

In addition to the strategy, we plan to publish an annual report. The idea is that the report will give an account of the operational performance of the SBP during 2016 and also address the reasons SBP is needed, how the system works, the future direction of SBP and a summary overview of the financial aspects of SBP.

How does SBP plan to incorporate the yet-to-be published Dutch, Belgian and EU regulations?

SBP is designed in such a way as to be flexible and incorporate any changes in the regulatory requirements that relate to woody biomass for energy production. We’re in close and constructive dialogue with all of the relevant authorities and that will, of course, continue. In general, when we become informed that there is any change in the regulatory requirements, we analyze the impacts of these new regulations and requirements and, where necessary, redraft and update the standards to incorporate these new requirements. This follows an explicit procedure, however, part of which is consulting our stakeholders and our stakeholder committee and other players in the system before we just flip a switch and change the standards.

SBP will begin collecting license fees from all certificate holders Oct. 1. Why was it decided to begin charging fees for certification under the framework?

When creating revenue for a certification system and becoming financially self-sufficient, the use of license fees is the most common way to move forward. Other systems charge membership fees, licensing fees or a combination of both. It was the intention of the founding members of SBP from the beginning that they will fund SBP for a specific time until SBP finds its feet, and then as SBP becomes established it will become financially self-sufficient and self-funding.

Biomass producers have voiced a number of concerns (i.e. processing time, certification resources, multicertification, lack of input, etc.). Can you speak to these?

I can only confirm that we’ve heard the same concerns and that we’re in close communication with the relevant trade associations to work together toward addressing these concerns. We’ve already made improvements, like the transfer of the assurance program to ASI and reducing the processing time for certification and so on, so I think that we’re on a positive path. We have also established the SBP stakeholder committee that currently provides the producers with a voice, and we’re very keen to understand any concerns that producers may have. I think we’re quite up to speed on the ideas and the concerns that we currently hear from the market.

SBP has publically listed one organization as a suspended certificate holder and another organization as a terminated certificate holder. What does this mean regarding future participation in SBP?

A certification can be valid, suspended or terminated. Moving from a valid status to being suspended or terminated can either be voluntary—the certificate holder can choose—or it can be enforced by a CB making a certification decision. The reason  we publish this information is that we want to prevent unsubstantiated claims entering the market. Every certification system out there has some kind of a certificate holder database where you can look up the validity of certificates, and that is important because papers can be copied and signatures can be falsified.

Generally, suspension or termination of a certificate holder does not limit their future participation, it just limits the path and the actions at that particular moment. If a certificate holder is suspended or terminated, then the certificate holder is not allowed to trade commodities with SBP claims. Suspensions may be lifted, but if a certificate holder is terminated they must undergo the whole certification assessment process again with a CB in order to be re-certified.

What else is SBP working on implementing in the upcoming year that pellet producers should be aware of?

The main workstreams that will impact the producers and the traders include the data transfer system being upgraded from version 0.5 to 1.0. Also, the implementation of a more interactive certificate holder database, with search functions and so on. Another is the SBP training program for certificate holders, auditors and CBs. I also mentioned earlier the introduction of the fee schedule for certificate holders, so I think those are the four major topics for this year.


Carsten Huljus - Interviewed By Katie Fletcher