What Finland doesn’t want you to know about its forests

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Northern lights, Kulosaari. Helsinki, Finland. [madeinfin / Flickr]

Forests are considered the nation’s ‘green gold’ in Finland. But the government’s new climate and energy strategy means their potential as a carbon sink will halve in the coming years, reducing the ability to use forests as a buffer against climate change, writes Satu Hassi.

Satu Hassi is a former Green MEP, currently member of the Finnish Parliament.

Every country in the EU has its own climate policy blind spot. In some it is coal. In Finland, it is forests.

Forests are part of the Finnish national identity and for excellent reasons. Finland is a ‘forest giant’, with roughly sixteen times more forest per capita on average than other European countries. It is said to have ten trees for every person in the world. Forests are the nation’s ‘green gold’, making Finland a forest-rich country in every sense.

This is good for the economy, as well as the climate. It is now increasingly clear that to meet the 1.5°C target, forests must play a greater role in mitigating climate change. They are the only available technology we have – albeit a natural one – to help the world go into a period of ‘negative emissions’, where we are sucking more carbon out of the atmosphere than we are emitting.

Finland should be on the frontline of helping make this happen.

So is everything so great in Finland’s forests? High levels of forest harvesting in the country are foreseen in the coming years, but that is only half of the problem.

On 24 November, the Finnish government unveiled a new climate and energy strategy where it revealed its intention to increase wood harvests by nearly 25%.

The Finnish Natural Resources Institute has predicted that this will mean Finland’s forest carbon sink will halve, from -26.6 million tonnes down to -13.3, something Finland’s own forest strategy also foresees, and the national Energy and Climate Strategy 2016 further confirms. And if the carbon is no longer in the forest, then sooner or later, it will find itself in the atmosphere.

The reduction in the sink is, to a large extent, due to a substantial increase in harvesting, more than 30%, compared to the previous decade. They also show that had the additional forest use been kept at current levels, our forest sinks would grow even further and be an even better buffer against climate change. So in the very decades when we need to increase that carbon stored in the forest, Finland, as well as many other countries in the EU, are doing the exact opposite.

In reality, there is nothing the EU can do about this, and it is not trying to do anything: Finland will not be forced to change this strategy in any way. Forest management is a responsibility of Member States, and not of the EU. But in order to be able to assess the impact on the climate, it is very important that we account properly for these emissions, something that Finland is trying to avoid by asking the EU to whitewash this increased harvesting in its greenhouse accounts, as if they weren’t happening.

Forestry accounting is fiendishly complex, with lots of rules and caveats. For this reason, the sector – defined as ‘Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry’ (LULUCF) in climate jargon – is often not given sufficient scrutiny. But even if you can dupe most policy makers in Brussels, you can’t dupe the atmosphere.

If the Finnish government is allowed to get away with destroying its forests while claiming to cut its emissions, they – as well as the rest of us – will pay the price.

Further Reading

[1] The increased harvest has been announced first in the PM Sipilä's government programme end-May 2015 "The use of wood will be diversified and increased by 15 million cubic metres a year" (page 25)

[2] The Finnish Forest Strategy 2025 sets harvest at 80 million m3/year. It is also stated that “as the use of wood increases the carbon sink will go down” (page 27), only in Finnish.

[3] The Energy and Climate Strategy (24.11.2016). The annual harvesting is estimated to be 79 million M3/year.

[4] In 2015, the harvesting had been approximately 68 million m3/year. The decade prior to that on average 60,6 million m3/year. According to the calculations of WWF Finland, the ecologically sustainable harvest is 65 million m3/year. See in Finnish: https://wwf.fi/mediabank/7067.pdf.