Finnish MEP: ‘Political fight begins’ over Europe’s old-growth forests

In Finland, "there is no commercial exploitation of forests in protected areas. They are protected, period," says Petri Sarvamaa. [French_landscape_photographer / Flickr]

The forests in Europe that can be considered “old growth” – and therefore declared protected areas – depends on the definition, says Petri Sarvamaa. “And that’s where the political fight begins,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.

Petri Sarvamaa is a Finnish MEP for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). He is the author of a draft report on the European Forest Strategy for the European Parliament.

Sarvamaa spoke to EURACTIV ahead of the publication of the European Commission’s biodiversity strategy for 2030 where forestry is expected to play a key role.

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Environmental groups have called on policymakers to protect old-growth forests from harvesting – both for biodiversity and climate reasons. Do you believe the EU should declare old-growth forests protected areas and ban them from commercial exploitation? Or do you believe some exceptions should be made?

More of the latter, but let me explain. The most important thing to understand, to begin with, is that the forests in different regions of Europe can be extremely different from one another. So the situation in any given region or country varies incredibly. This is something that must be kept in mind with every piece of EU regulation or strategy.

The second thing to remember is that decision-making on forestry is in the hands of the member states. And whatever the Commission comes up with cannot change that. So whatever the Commission does on forestry – be it in relation to biodiversity or climate change – needs to be realistic and agreed with the member states.

These are the cornerstones of the whole discussion.

Now, of course I’m all for protecting primary forests. Regarding old-growth forests we need to have definitions at EU level in place first. For example, what percentage of forests in Europe is “old growth”? That depends on the definition.

And that’s where the political fight begins. You also need reliable statistics. And the data between regions and member states is currently not comparable, which is a problem.

So you believe some form of moratorium on the commercial exploitation of old growth forests should be decided at European level once we have an agreed definition?

There is no one size-fits-all solution. For example in my member state – Finland – there is no commercial exploitation of forests in protected areas. They are protected, period.

Approximately 12% of our forests in Finland are protected. Now, this percentage may look small but it is huge if you apply it on a European scale. And what the landscape looks like in each member state plays a pivotal role in political debates about setting the criteria.

Do you believe such a definition could be set at the EU level or not?

We should be looking at what is being done in different regions and member states. What kind of forests could fall into the category of old growth forests in Spain, Portugal or The Netherlands? The answers there are very different from forests in Boreal regions, like Finland or Sweden.

It doesn’t make any sense to define a percentage of old growth forests that should be protected at European level. And this is a question that cannot be isolated from the EU’s overall forest strategy.

We need more forests, I agree with Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans on this point. And the way to grow more forests is through sustainable forest management. But who gets to further define what we mean by sustainable forest management?

From what I hear, the Commission’s environment DG wants to change the definition for sustainable forest management as part of the upcoming biodiversity strategy for 2030.

We all want a better environment and forests that can contribute to the climate change battle. But we are losing if we start re-defining sustainable forest management from only one side of the equation.

So I really hope that if DG environment re-defines sustainable forest management, it will look at all three aspects of the equation: 1) environment and biodiversity, 2) the economy, and 3) social aspects.

If we start to re-define sustainable forest management from one aspect only, we will definitely end up losing on all fronts. And from what I hear, this is unfortunately what DG environment has decided to do.

Former UN chief Christiana Figueres has called on the EU to restrict imports of agricultural products like beef, soy, palm oil or timber which cause deforestation in places like Indonesia or the Amazon. Do you believe this is desirable?

At least 80% of global deforestation is caused by massive plantations like soy, coffee, and cacao in South America, Indonesia, and tropical countries.

Now, it will make more sense to address the imports of these products, if we also look at European production at the same time. For example, we won’t be able to replace all the soy imports from abroad with European-made soy. But we might be able to replace parts of oil imports with forest-based biofuels.

So yes, I think Europe should impose stricter criteria for imports of agricultural products coming from those countries. It’s a global question, but our European examples could provide part of the answer.

What could stricter criteria look like? Certification schemes for example?

Yes, we have to build on what we have. We have well functioning certification schemes. And we have the FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) and the EU timber regulation, which specifically address the imports into Europe of products that potentially contribute to the loss of forests.

Regarding agricultural commodities, it would be important to find a policy tool, which really tackles the issue.

Tackle in which way?

It is problematic that we rely on data given to us by countries outside of the EU. Europe’s hand doesn’t stretch over there but for example better use of satellites could be one way to go.

So we have to build on the data and look at what they’re doing with their forests and what is causing deforestation.

A group of 800 scientists has warned about the greenhouse gas effects of burning wood for energy purposes, saying it exacerbates climate change by causing deforestation outside of Europe, notably in the US, which is a major exporter of wood pellets. How can those adverse effects be avoided?

Bioenergy is part of the bio-economy, which is too often overlooked. It is a complex issue that has many aspects to it.

Burning wood is one. Cutting a tree simply to burn it makes no sense at all. It’s the most primitive way of producing energy. But the picture changes completely if you look at what’s being done with the tree before parts of it are being burned.

Should we ban wood as a source of energy? If formulated like that, my answer to this question would be no.

It also depends what the bioenergy replaces, I guess. In Britain, there is a power plant called Drax, which was converted from coal to biomass. Is that something you would consider good practice or not?

Well, if you replace burning coal with forest residues or biomass coming from trees that have already contributed to other uses, then it’s a step forward.

But how can policymakers be sure that the biomass used in those power plants actually comes from trusted sources? This relies to a large extent and what the companies themselves report, doesn’t it?

Yes. And that brings us to the previous question: whether you buy your biomass from China or Sweden, makes a dramatic difference.

In Europe, we have the ways and means to make sure biomass comes from sustainably managed sources. And we have the forests.

So let’s do it in Europe. That is part of the positive answer for the EU’s forests, which at the same time helps us achieve our climate and biodiversity goals.

Do you believe stricter certification schemes can improve trust in the biomass used for bioenergy?

At global level, the answer is yes: we need to know what kind of biomass we’re getting from China or Latin America.

But doing that could take time and won’t be easy to implement. So let’s concentrate our efforts on sourcing our biomass from Europe, which already has by far the strictest system in place in the world.

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