Green MEP: Voluntary schemes have failed biodiversity in forests

“We need to monitor better, we need to scrutinise better, we need to implement better," said Ville Niinistö MEP about how to care for Europe's depleted forests [Jan VAN DE VEL / EP]

This article is part of our special report Forestry and climate change.

Voluntary schemes have not been enough to protect biodiversity in Europe’s forests and more coordinated measures are needed to protect nature in the EU, according to Green lawmaker Ville Niinistö.

Ville Niinistö is a former Finnish minister of environment and is now a member of the European Parliament for the Greens. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Kira Taylor in the run-up to the Fit for 55 package of climate legislation, published on 14 July.

What role do you see for biomass in meeting the EU’s 2030 targets on renewable energy?

It is obvious that renewable energy is one of the solutions to the climate crisis. But the upscaling of renewable energy and the future 100% renewable energy system must also be based on living within planetary boundaries and the appropriate biodiversity criteria.

So the role of biomass should be limited to sustainable volumes of industrial waste and residues that cannot be used for higher-value products. And, as Greens, we would not like to see the growth of bioenergy. I would actually prefer a decrease – as fewer trees would be cut down for bioenergy and more of the harvested products would end up in long-lasting materials.

Environmental NGOs have warned that bioenergy creates a “carbon debt” that will take years to reabsorb as new trees grow. Are you worried about this as well?

I am. It is obvious that, when plants grow, they absorb CO2. The longer a tree grows, the more CO2 it absorbs. So when the trees are cut down, it takes a long time for the CO2 to be reabsorbed by the trees of the new forest, so we have to remember that old forests are also a form of huge carbon storage.

Not only do the annual sinks count, but also if you cut an old forest, then you will also lose a lot of the CO2 that is being held in the soil. We need to take into account the climate emergency and we cannot cut into our carbon sinks to make very short-term products like energy, where the CO2 is directly emitted having taken years to build up. We should aim at making long-lasting products, so the CO2 absorbed stays in the product, out of the loop.

Do you believe that biomass or bioenergy should always be regarded as carbon neutral? What are the exceptions, if any?

Obviously, biomass is not carbon neutral. It’s just a question of how the rules can be made in a way that protects both biodiversity and sustainability in long term carbon sinks. Everybody knows it’s not carbon neutral – the IPCC knows it, the Commission knows it, even the industry knows it and the member states know it.

We have to narrow the area where biomass is being used as a pretext for cutting trees and is sold as a carbon neutral option. We know that any use of biomass, especially when burning for energy does have negative side effects on nature and it also has negative effects on carbon sinks. We need to think about how to count new residues and waste streams in order to incentivise the best options.

How can the EU ascertain the carbon footprint of the biomass imported in the EU? Should a verification and monitoring system be put in place?

We need a verification and monitoring system, both within the EU and also for imported biomass. If we limit ourselves to burning residues and waste, then we don’t have to worry about the LULUCF side effects. But if we import primary biomass, the Commission could put the burden of proof on the supplier to ensure it is effectively counted in the LULUCF sector. The current system is far from perfect as LULUCF sector emission calculations vary from one country to he other so we have to make sure that how LULUCF emissions are counted is also scrutinised and is better for the climate. All of this is linked to what is in international conventions, so we also need to work there.

The bioenergy industry has argued against updating current sustainability criteria for biomass in the EU’s renewable energy directive. Do you think these rules are good enough or do you want to see tightened regulations around bioenergy?

We know that there is a high risk of erosion of biodiversity in Europe due to our lax rules on bioenergy. We have even evidence of 300-year-old trees in Lapland in Finland that are being burned for district heating and that is a monumental waste for the environment, for cultural heritage and also economically.

It’s obvious that the rules need to be updated. It’s a question of credibility for the European Union that, if we try to aim for a high target of renewables, then those renewables must be solidly sustainable.

The industry would probably argue that this is already the case and that current rules are simply not fully implemented yet. Their argument is that, by reopening the directive once again, policymakers risk creating instability. Do you think a revision is necessary or that the Commission just needs to come down harder on those who aren’t implementing the rules?

I think there needs to be both. We need to monitor better, we need to scrutinise better, we need to implement better. We have to make sure the member states are stricter in what they count towards their national target and also make sure that they can stop the negative side effects of biomass burning.

We know that Nordic countries, like Finland, Sweden or Denmark, domestically say that they don’t want this kind of biomass burning that has negative biodiversity effects. It’s even in their governments’ national programmes. The question is why do they still allow it and why they are even lobbying for giving that option in the EU legislation when everybody seems to be against it?

I think it’s obvious that we need stricter rules on biomass use within the renewable energy directive, but also we will need a better implementation. I would also like to emphasise that this is in the interest of those in the industry who develop added-value products, higher-end products that are aiming for sustainable energy solutions also within the area of bioeconomy. It’s better for their products because they will get a higher market for their more sustainable products if the negative products that have side effects on biodiversity are excluded from the market.

The European Commission is also planning to table a new EU forests strategy. What are your expectations?

I expect to see a forest strategy that for the first time acknowledges that the majority of terrestrial biodiversity is in forests and that we can only protect these essential values for our future – the rich biodiversity of our forests – with environmental protection policies. It’s obvious that the forestry sector itself, and in any economic use of forests, must become more sustainable.

The majority of forests in Europe are currently managed. We see a deterioration of biodiversity in Europe. So it’s obvious that we need to shift to more ecological and sustainable forest management methods as well. And the forestry sector has to acknowledge this. They can’t claim to be more climate and biodiversity-friendly than they are, that would only be greenwashing.

Europe’s forests are in a bad state and their ability to capture carbon has decreased – what is needed to turn this around? Will the forest strategy be enough to fix this?

I think it’s obvious that any voluntary schemes we’ve had so far – the Forest Europe process, where the ministries of agriculture and forests have been meeting – they have not been able to produce methods for improving biodiversity in European forests. Furthermore, voluntary certification schemes such as the BSC are clearly not enough and more coordinated measures must be introduced. The European Union needs to be involved there.

It’s hard to imagine effective EU policies for the protection of forests and biodiversity values without also promoting more sustainable forest management practices. So the forest strategy draft is addressing the right questions. It’s a step in the right direction, but a lot more needs to happen in order to make sure that biodiversity and forests are protected.

How do you think sustainable forest management should be defined? Could schemes like carbon credits perhaps help incentivise good management?

I think we need both – different kinds of forest management practices, where we take into account the biodiversity impact. We need more natural forests, more continuous growth, more multispecies forest, fewer fertilisers and we need to let the forest grow older to have more old-growth forests. This means we need to grow forestation in order to make sure that the biodiversity networks are strong enough in Europe to halt the loss of biodiversity.

Similarly, at the same time, the forest management practices, need to be such that any economic use of forest can create economic income from forests without limiting the biodiversity. And there should be a big role also for restoration and reforestation to achieve the kind of carbon sinks that will help promote sustainable forestry. So I think there will need to be a focus for both environmental actions that are funded by governments and the EU, but also increased carbon sinks. And they should be interlinked.

Some MEPs have criticised the draft forest strategy for failing to maintain a balance between the role of climate and the economic role of forestry. Do you see that as an issue?

I think traditionally the environmental policies for biodiversity protection and forest management have been very separate areas of national decision making in forested countries in Europe. We need to see forests create a lot of income with eco-tourism, reindeer herding, and recreational value for citizens by way of health and relieving stress.

Forests are a source of income also when the trees are not cut and this multipurpose use of forests needs to be enshrined in how forests are managed. That means that the way the forestry industry works has to respect the biodiversity of forests more.

We have to create [policies], based on increasing the economic incentive to value these other services that forests provide, rather than only cutting down trees. I think this is a way of creating a better economic balance. We have to realise that forests are valuable as they are and not only as sold trees.

Obviously, in forested countries where there is a strong forest sector, the majority of forests will stay under economic use. But we just have to moderate the number of trees cut, and the methods of how they are being cut in order to support long term sustainability and biodiversity.

When it comes to transparency and accounting in the forestry industry, do you think improvements are needed?

Europe is the place to start. We need better inventories when it comes to how you account for things and that you realise that forest is also carbon storage. So you don’t only count the flux, but you also count the stock of carbon in forests.

Then we need to also get better at how our accounting takes into account biodiversity and how we can protect forests to stop the degradation of nature and the loss of biodiversity. These accounting rules are part of transparency in making sure that any forestry-related products can also be relied upon. When they say that the product is sustainable, we have to have accounting methods that can provide the facts behind the claim. I think it’s in the interest of the industry and it’s definitely in the interest of addressing global deforestation and stopping the loss of tropical forests that we create good accounting rules globally for the forestry sector.

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