Short-term views on forest climate benefits is a mistake

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Forestry should be integrated better into EU plans in order to fight climate change more effectively. [Shutterstock]

The Commission’s land-use proposal risks being a step backwards in transitioning to a fossil fuel-free economy. Mårten Larsson explains the alternatives.

Mårten Larsson is senior vice-president of the Swedish Forest Industries Federation.

Some winters ago the ice on Lake Mälaren west of Stockholm was great for skating, attracting amateurs from Sweden and other European countries.

On one of the coldest days, a Dutch skater was surprised by the lack of smoke coming out of the chimneys in the city and wanted to know why.

The answer was easy to find: Stockholm is heated by three large combined heat and power plants. The largest one located in the city harbour. The city’s 2 million inhabitants and those working in town enjoy warm houses, warm water, green electricity and clean air thanks to these plants fuelled with by-products and residuals from our forests and forest industry.

The surplus of by-products, residuals or heat is delivered to the surrounding communities. Another wood-related residue, tall oil from the pulp production, is refined into biodiesel.

In Stockholm, emissions from fossil fuel are avoided by using renewable raw material from our forests. The climate-friendly effect of forest-related products is even bigger when considering the use of wood in buildings, in paper packaging instead of plastics, in textiles made by wood fibres and new innovative materials under developments.

This is a way of growing the bio-economy and, according to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the organisation honoured with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize: “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”

This strategy coincides with the fundamental part of sustainable forest management saying that future generations shall have at least as good availability to wood as we have today.

This positive contribution to combating climate change can be enhanced even further if forestry is integrated into the EU’s climate and energy policies in a smarter way and fully considering the substitution effect.

The European Parliament and European Council have been both working for a while on a Commission proposal focusing on land use, land-use change and forestry (better known in the Brussels bubble under the odd acronym of LULUCF).

The proposed regulation is part of the commendable EU’s efforts to reduce green-house gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. However, this proposal risks being a step back on the road to a sustainable bio-economy and ultimately a fossil-free society transition.

Instead of encouraging member countries to replace petroleum-based products with wood, the European legislator seems to prefer cutting corners and just impose top-down simplistic restrictions on the use of forest resources without taking into account thoughtful and accurate sustainable forest management principles.

For example, one of the most critical issues is the determination of future harvesting levels. Should these be calculated on the basis of past historic intensity in forest use or should they be based on future potential created by decades of investments in sustainably managed forests?

The choice of calculation methods, definitions and criteria for forest management may appear as a technical detail, yet they result in restraining the development of the bio-based economy. Analyses for Sweden shows that we can -in a sustainable way- increase our harvest and forest industry production by 10 % in ten years.

When applying as such the Commission’s proposal these 10% production increase or 10 million tonnes of CO2 would be reported as emissions and Sweden will need to compensate for these emissions by buying forest credits from other member states or do more in the non-trading sector.

Sweden, together with Luxembourg, already has the toughest target in the non-trading sector among all member states.

The forest industry alone employs 3 million people in the EU, ensures 93% of the European paper and board needs and 100% of the needs for sawn timber. If an increased harvest of renewable resources will have to be reported as emissions, an increase of imports will be inevitable.

From the perspective of the Swedish forestry industry, we believe that the EU regulatory proposal can be substantially improved to promote ambitious climate targets while safeguarding a sustainable European forest industry model. This can be achieved by introducing two pragmatic and forward-looking changes.

First, refer to the most current description of the state of the forests and their management and determine the future harvesting levels, without reducing these due to historic intensity This will avoid the risk of misleading or erroneous comparisons in a context of increasing volatility of economic cycles and geo-political changes. It will also be in line with the ambition in many member states to create better forest conditions by means of an active forest management.

Second, safeguard sustainability by ensuring that future generations will be able to benefit from at least the same good availability of wood as we have today. Environmental and social aspects of forest management should, of course, be included in a sustainable way.

Finally, don’t open the way to flexibility between forest management and sectors outside the scope of EU LULUCF draft legislation. It may be attractive in the short run to use forest credits to reach targets instead of reducing emissions from ie, transport or heating, but in the long run the unmanaged forests start dying, emitting CO2, and the problem is still there to be solved in other sectors.

We encourage EU policy makers at the Parliament, the Council and the Commission to converge their efforts towards policies that foster growth in the bio-economy and encourage climate change mitigation both in the short run (2030), and longer term, in the second half of the century, in support of the Paris Agreement.

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