Forest policy splits Nordic lawmakers in the European Parliament

Nordic EU lawmakers are split over forest use as the EU gears up for the debate on the contentious LULUCF proposal. EPA/MARKKU OJALA

Leading lawmakers from the Socialist and the Greens group in the European Parliament held contrasting views on forest policy during a EURACTIV event earlier this month.

Nordic countries have a heightened interest in European forestry policy due to the importance of their wood, pulp and paper industries.

More than 75% of the land in Sweden and Finland is covered by forests. Sweden is the third largest exporter of pulp, paper and sawn timber in the world. For Finland, forestry products make up a fifth of its exports.

Jytte Guteland, a Swedish lawmaker from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), advocated for responsible forest management, where cuttings are allowed only in selected areas where trees have reached full maturity and absorb less carbon dioxide. 

“The forest that doesn’t capture CO2 emissions as much anymore – that is very old in the life cycle – can also be used for materials,” S&D lawmaker Jytte Guteland said at the EURACTIV event.

Wood used in building materials or furniture capture CO2 and store it for decades until the products reach the end of their useful life, the Swedish MEP explained.

But that view was strongly opposed by Green lawmaker Ville Niinistö, a former Finnish environment minister.

“Cutting down trees is never an answer to increasing [carbon] sinks,” Niinistö said in a rebuttal to Guteland. In Nordic conditions, even old or dead forests can store carbon for hundreds of years, he argued, citing recent scientific research.

Battle over carbon sinks

The debate over whether to leave forests alone or to engage in active forest management – and regular harvests – is a contentious one for Nordic countries given the importance of their forestry sector.

For the rest of the EU, however, forests are often seen as a “carbon sink” that plays an important role in achieving the bloc’s climate goals.

The capacity of European forests to absorb CO2 “has been shrinking” over the years, warned EU climate chief Frans Timmermans as he presented the bloc’s 2030 climate goals in September last year.

“The sink has to go back to its previous levels” if Europe wants to reach climate neutrality and preserve biodiversity at the same time, he said.

That approach was confirmed earlier this year when the European Commission presented its forest strategy, which includes a proposal to build up the amount of carbon stored in forests and soils to 310 million tonnes by 2030, up from 263 million tonnes in 2018.

“All is not well in our woods,” warned environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, as he presented the EU’s proposal in July. 

Seeing the woods: EU lays out plan to capture more carbon from forests

The European Commission on Wednesday (14 July) unveiled plans to build up carbon sinks, like forests and wetlands, as part of a broader package of climate legislation aimed at achieving a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

The EU’s approach to forestry – focusing chiefly on climate change and carbon removals – is strongly rejected by conservative MEPs from the European People’s Party (EPP).

Petri Sarvamaa, a Finnish MEP from the EPP group, told EURACTIV in July that the European Commission should not limit the industry’s access to sustainably produced biomass. Forestry products are a key building block of the circular bioeconomy, he argues, saying the Commission overstepped its mandate when tabling a European forest strategy.

The socialists and Greens, for their part, don’t deny the EU a say on the matter. But their views diverge on how to approach forest policy.

With the European Commission proposal out, the ball is now in the Parliament’s court.

Niinistö said at the event that he would be the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the Commission’s proposal on land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), a position that enables him to shape the position of the Parliament’s environment committee, which has the lead on the file.

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That a Finnish MEP was awarded the coveted rapporteur position is an indicator of the importance of forest policy for Nordic countries.

EU member states already report on CO2 emissions from the LULUCF sector, but from 2026, they will face individual targets for carbon capture.

Those will be decided by the end of 2025, a process that could be divisive as EU governments will need to decide how countries will share the burden of carbon removals among themselves.

The Commission’s proposed target – growing carbon skinks from LULUCF to 310 million tonnes – means 3 billion trees will have to be planted across the EU by 2030, according to the EU forest strategy. 

These will come in addition to the 3 billion trees that will grow naturally by the end of this decade, said Humberto Delgado Rosa, director at the Commission’s environment directorate.

Nordic countries have a lot to lose from the EU’s forest strategy. The sector is a major employer and contributes to a large share of GDP in Sweden and Finland, meaning any move to restrict forest harvesting at EU level will have a disproportionate impact on their economy.

> Watch the full recording of the debate below:

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