Magic tricks in the forest: When member states make their emissions vanish

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Sámi reindeer herders Antti Tervaniemi (right) and Leo Aikio (left). A way of life that has endured for generations faces an existential threat from logging and climate change. [Hannah Mowat]

Countries are free to manage their forests as they choose, but reducing them to a tool of light-fingered carbon accounting can leave world deprived of vital carbon sinks, writes Hannah Mowat.

Hannah Mowat is a forests and climate campaigner for FernThis article is based on a new publication by Fern, Arctic Limits: How Finland’s forest policies threaten the Sámi and the climate.

Though climate change affects us all, climate policymaking can be baffling, awash with acronyms and technical details.

Perhaps the most devilishly complex climate area of all is accounting for carbon emissions from the land and forests sector, known as LULUCF.

The very acronym is known to strike fear into the hearts of civil servants. LULUCF is riddled with loopholes: inherent weaknesses which are open to exploitation by countries as they try to use forests to avoid making more costly emissions cuts in other sectors.

This makes LULUCF particularly fertile ground for member states to try to obfuscate and tailor rules so they work in their favour.

EU LULUCF proposal raises debate in member states

The rules for how to account for emissions from LULUCF are particularly problematic. In July last year, the European Commission responded to criticisms that the rules allowed countries to hide emissions from their forests. They made a proposal for increased rigour that would require countries to account for any emissions released by an increase in tree harvesting.

The Commission knew this was urgent because since the Renewable Energy Directive was introduced in 2009, the EU has encouraged its members to burn wood instead of fossil fuels to create energy. This has pushed countries to harvest more wood. Emissions released when the wood is burnt are not counted as emissions by power stations; instead they are – or should be – counted when the trees are cut.

Now the two policies – member states’ plans to increase logging and the Commission’s to count emissions from land and forests – have resulted in a stand-off. Nowhere more so than in Finland, Europe’s most heavily forested nation.

In 2016 the Finnish government announced its intention to increase harvesting the country’s forests by nearly 25% between now and 2030.

The proposed increase is so vast that according to the government’s own Impact Assessment of its Energy and Climate Strategy, Finland will actually increase emissions between now and 2030, even though less fossil fuel will be used.

Yet, Finnish authorities maintain that they should not have to account for these emissions, since Finland’s forests will still absorb more carbon dioxide than they release.

To avoid counting forestry emissions, the Finnish, supported by Austria, are proposing a complex system which would mean that if their forests soak up less carbon dioxide, they won’t count this. With one wave of a magic wand, they are simply trying to conjure this effect away.

Yet as Satu Hassi, Finnish Member of Parliament from the Green party, said in a recent article in EURACTIV: “Even if you can dupe most policymakers in Brussels, you can’t dupe the atmosphere.”

Stories about carbon accounting and Brussels policy debates might seem like an abstraction to some. But the realities of Finland’s intensive logging and climate change are already wreaking havoc in Finland’s Arctic north.

The Sámi are the northern most indigenous people living in the European Union, their traditional lands stretching across the Arctic area of Sámi (which today encompasses Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland).

In Finland, the Sámi are already seeing their way of life eroded by the twin pressures of the country’s industrial logging policy and climate change, as I saw first-hand on a recent trip there.

For centuries, reindeer herding has been crucial to the Sámi’s survival. But now the lichen which is the reindeers’ main food source during the brutally cold winter months is disappearing: logging of old growth forests is eradicating tree hanging lichen, and climate change means that ground lichen is increasingly frozen beneath the surface snow (due to higher levels of rainfall), where reindeers can’t access it.

Tiina Sanila-Aikio is a former reindeer herder and current President of Finland’s Sámi parliament. She sees logging and climate change as an existential threat to the Sámi way of life. “Are we still an indigenous people if we don’t have a connection to nature?” she asks.

Need for credible accounting

Those lobbying for increased logging argue that trees grow back. But in a harsh environment like Northern Finland it can take up to 170 years and neither the Sámi nor the climate can afford to wait that long.

Scientists estimate that if the world keeps producing carbon dioxide at current levels, in four years we will have missed our best chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. We need to incentivise countries to start increasing their carbon sink now, but accounting rules proposed by Finland and Austria will incentivise the cutting of forests.

Deciding on the future of forests is a matter for member states. But where these choices have broader impacts on the climate, it concerns us all.