For the first time, a study evaluates the overall positive climate effect of the European forest-based industrial ecosystem.
The study “Climate effect of the forest-based sector in the European Union” calculates the “substitution effect” which consists of preventing CO2 emissions moving away from fossil-based materials and couples it with existing data on process emissions, CO2 removed by the forest and the CO2 stored in forest products.
The results show that forests and forest-based products remove a net of 806 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents annually.
This corresponds to 20% of all fossil emissions in the European Union!
How does this happen?
CO2 is removed from the atmosphere in very large quantities and stored in growing forests in photosynthesis. While part of this carbon dioxide eventually circulates back to the atmosphere, another part of this carbon remains within the materials (cellulose, fibre, wood, etc..)
As this material is used (and recycled) to produce forest-based products, CO2 remains stored within it for a longer period of time before re-entering the natural biogenic carbon cycle.
Furthermore forest-based products have a very low carbon footprint – for instance in packaging, paperboard is half the carbon footprint of that of plastics and the difference in favour of paperboard is increasing – and they replace fossil-intensive products.
Products made of with forest-based materials save the much higher carbon emissions that would have otherwise been used to make it out of fossil-based and fossil-intensive materials.
This is what the substitution effect is all about. The radical thing about the substitution effect is that it is immediate and significant: unlike most other climate change mitigation options, increased substitution is available here and now. Already as large as the carbon sink of the entire European forests, with consumer awareness, it can still significantly increase, whilst sustainable European forests keep growing too.
European politicians and business leaders have now the unique opportunity to make economic recovery efforts compatible with the long term climate transition.
More than ever, the safest investment is to support sustainable value chains which contribute to economic growth and climate neutrality.
As demonstrated by this study, forest-based industries are undoubtedly one of the green and resilient European industrial ecosystems that can help build the transition towards a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
Climate neutrality is a key goal of the European Union and
EU Member States are equally committed to this goal with France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, just to name a few, having already put forward their national plan for climate neutrality.
However, the impact of forests and forest-based products is today severely underestimated as studies and reporting only look at the sink effect of forests and process emissions. Since their first reports, the International Panel of Climate Change has been advocating a holistic approach to forests and raised this gap in the formal reporting.
The European Commission and the Member States can help this process. The Forest-based sector contribution to the Green Recovery of Europe would be a healthy injection of green and resilience into all other ecosystems as it is linked to renewable energy, textiles, construction, food and agriculture, low carbon manufacturing, green chemicals, health and hygiene, pharmaceuticals and key packaging solutions.
The forest-based industrial ecosystem is in a unique position to recover by moving forward in a way that is in line with the objectives of the EU Green Deal and the new Industrial Strategy for Europe.
 This study by Dr. Peter Holmgren, a forestry specialist and the former Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research was released in June 2020 by the Confederation of European Paper Industries.