Finnish MEP: Sustainable forest management must be supported by EU climate legislation

Petri Sarvamaa from the European People's Party speaking at the plenary session on the European forest strategy [Laurie DIEFFEMBACQ / EP]

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

Sustainable forest management – considering social, economic and ecological aspects on an equal footing – is key to keeping Europe’s forests healthy and must be supported by EU legislation in order to reach the bloc’s 2030 climate goals, according to Finnish MEP Petri Sarvamaa.

Petri Sarvamaa is a Finnish MEP for the European People’s Party (EPP) and lead author of a European Parliament report on the EU’s forest strategy. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Kira Taylor ahead of the release of the European Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ package of climate legislation.

The European Commission is due to table a revised renewable energy directive (RED II) on 14 July. What role do you see for biomass in meeting the EU’s 2030 targets on renewable energy?

It is a little unclear to me whether reopening RED II now at this stage is overall a good idea. I understand the name – Fit for 55 – says that you have to review everything to achieve the overall target of CO2 reductions. But I remain a little bit reserved about the wisdom of reopening it at this stage because it will be the industry, more than anyone else, who will be actually doing this. It’s their environment, their investments, the way they operate, where they operate, and where they invest.

Revising this directive is going to take a couple of years. And whatever the Commission does now, they should restrict themselves to not doing an overhaul of the whole thing, but rather just a little detailed correction.

I would say that the Commission should really not limit the industry access to sustainable material use of forest-based biomass because this is one of the key building blocks towards a circular bioeconomy, and at the same time, achieving those very same climate targets.

The industrial ecosystem, I think, has proven quite successful in reducing CO2 emissions and forestry plays a huge part in all this. It’s a significant component for many parts of the green economy – you have biochemicals, packaging, for instance.

The European Commission estimates that renewable energy generation must roughly double – from around 20% now to 38-40% in 2030 – in order to meet the EU’s updated climate goals. Does this imply a doubling in biomass generation too? Would you support such an objective?

When the share of renewables grows, the demand for biomass will naturally also increase. However, the calculation from doubling the renewables to doubling biomass is not that straightforward. There are other sources of renewable energy as well, so other factors also need to be taken into account.

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 think we should first get the stats about the state of forests in Europe. We talk about debt. It’s always very relative. The forest area in Europe has increased by 9% over the last 30 years and is more than one-third of Europe’s land surface – about 35% is forest.

If you look in more detail at the numbers, the volume of wood and the weight of carbon stored in European forests have grown by 50% over the last 30 years. Only a part of the increment has been harvested and about three-quarters of the net annual wood increment is felled. So the volume of wood supply has grown and is 40% more than it was in 1990. The area of forests designated for biodiversity conservation has increased by 65% in 20 years and the area designated for landscape conservation has grown by 8%.

When considering carbon debt, we need to remember that we can use forests and wood in different products. It’s not like you are felling trees to burn them. We use them to substitute fossil-based raw materials and products.

If our forests keep growing at this rate – the part of Europe where I come from, it’s an astronomically different story than the rest of Europe – how much we have increased our wood mass in the last 30 years is staggering. With these wood-based products, we can substitute fossil-based products and work on carbon storage at the same time. I see it as a win: win situation.

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

Like I said, with biomass it’s possible to substitute fossil-based fuel sources for energy. The key here is that trees and forests are not cut for energy use. If we look at modern forestry, trees are not cut for energy use or just plain biomass. The energy from burning wood – it comes from residues, such as from industry, from timber harvest and different stages of forest development.

Wood is obtained for different purposes, so we use every part of the tree for the best possible purpose in a resource-efficient way – that’s how it works nowadays if forests are sustainably managed. The bottom part of the tree is used for long-duration wood products and wood construction. The middle part of the tree is pulpwood and that’s used for pulp and products derived from pulp.

When the opponents of what I call sustainable forest management say that you should not just make pulp out of trees, they are either intentionally or unintentionally not knowing what they’re talking about. They’re forgetting that from the middle part of the tree, you get all kinds of products, such as paperboard, textile fibres, composites, bioproducts, hygiene, medical items and this list is growing all the time the more we invest in research and development and innovation. So it is the industrial residue streams that are used for bioenergy.

The question of whether biomass is carbon neutral – you have to look into this. It really can be carbon neutral and, even more so at the end of the day when we advance technology.

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?

If I speak for the Parliament’s forest strategy, we stressed the need to implement traceability measures for imports. We encouraged the European Commission and the member states to foster cooperation with third countries to consolidate higher standards of sustainability.

But we also stressed the need to foster the implementation of the current regulation that we have on timber – the EU timber regulation and also the Forest law enforcement governance and trade action plan.

With those tools to allow better prevention of the entry of illegally felled or illegally sourced wood, we sent this message already. I also think that there is a need for certification systems and for the inclusion of specific provisions of sustainable forest management in trade agreements so those should be better incorporated.

Moving onto the Forest Strategy, the European Commission is also planning to table it on Wednesday and the EPP has sent a letter criticising the leaked draft. What are your expectations?

I really hope that, at the last minute, the Commission would take a correcting step back to make it more balanced because [the leaked draft version of the strategy] is not balanced. It simply doesn’t take the same approach to community needs and social aspects and most importantly, to economic factors of the forest strategy. I was really afraid that this was what was going to come out from the Commission and now we will see.

My only hope is that this last effort directly to the President of the Commission with the whole EPP leadership behind this, could have them take one more look and have little corrections here and there to make it more balanced because now it’s almost building the whole strategy on forest protection and underlying concepts that are only one part of the picture.

The report you drafted on the forest strategy talked about the aspects of forest management having to be balanced with the climate benefits of forests. How does this work in practice? How do you think sustainable forest management should be defined?

You harvest in order to make the forest stronger and more resilient – that’s one of the key aspects. You have to harvest the forest to use wood in order to have a long term strategy for how the forests also contribute to climate change.

Because if you don’t, what you end up with is having more storage and sink in the short term. Those scientists who keep telling us that it’s indisputable that the less you cut trees, the more carbon the forest will store, they are right, but they are only right for the next 20 years. Then the curve starts to decline.

In the end, if you don’t do it in balance and you deviate from what I think is sustainable forest management, if you keep on going on down that track, then after 50 years, for our kids and their grandchildren etc, it will be a totally different picture.

Yes, we have to act now as far as climate is concerned. But you have to understand, first of all, that there needs to be a right mix of trees in the forest. And two, that there is careful planning on exactly what parts of the forest you fell and what parts of the forest you fell altogether.

This is one of the biggest monsters for those who want to emphasise the protection of forests – that you should not go and cut all trees from any parts of the forest. I would slightly disagree because felling is needed in some cases and there is really no solid science to prove that this would diminish biodiversity for example.

Could something like carbon credits enable more sustainable management? How do you think these could work?

No. To give a short answer, you have to be very careful. It can go wrong in so many places because the worst-case scenario is that forests become passive assets. And, after they become passive, we enter a vicious circle where the forest becomes more vulnerable to risks, such as fires, that would reduce their ability to adapt to climate change.

Everything is connected to everything. If you interfere too much and subsidise forest owners for not harvesting their forests, then there is a very clear risk and it’s down the road sooner than you would expect.

Your report talked about the forest strategy needing to bridge the gap between national level implementation and EU level targets. How does this work and how can the forest strategy encompass the huge divergence in the nature of and biodiversity in forests across Europe?

The forest strategy, if it’s balanced and equally takes into account the three aspects –  ecological, economic and social – is a very good tool to oversee the connection between forests and climate change.

The whole problem goes back to how the Commission drafted the forest strategy. What happened was that DG CLIMA and DG ENVI overstepped and pushed aside DG AGRI in the preparation work for the strategy. This led to a situation where it’s not in balance anymore. The strategy that was leaked, if it’s not corrected, it’s just going to bring more problems.

At best, it becomes a paper that is not meaningful to all the players in the field. That would be very, very regrettable because the important players are the industry, the innovators, and those making the investments and growing the trees and the wood mass in Europe.

We all agree that we should grow the wood mass, but these people only talk about growing the sinks.

How do you get there, that’s the real question. The forest strategy they leaked is not helping in my view. It’s very contradictory in many cases. One side of the mouth is talking about climate, the other side of the mouth is at the same time saying that we have to protect the forest, and then another part of the mouth is saying that, yes, but we have to increase the carbon storage and sinks and double them.

If you take a map of Europe and see which countries can contribute to growing the sink, you have a much more complex picture. You just cannot simply tell member states like Finland and Sweden to keep doing more, more and more and more – how much more can you do?

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