Blog Posts Antti Asikainen Climate, Environment, Forestry

On 11 July, the Environment Committee of the EU Parliament accepted a proposal, according to which the forest reference level used in the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions in the land use sector will be set in accordance with average levels in 2000–2012. The proposal also states that wood products and any changes in their carbon capture and storage will be included in carbon accounting.

What effects will this have on Finland and its ability to reach its emissions goals set for 2030? As the detailed definition of the reference level and its use in emissions calculations in the land use sector remain undefined, it is not possible to give exact answers. However, the basic idea is that, in one way or another, growth and removal of forests in EU member states in 2021–2030 will be compared to the average level in 2000–2012.

Forest reference level: Net carbon sink or emissions of commercial forests in 2000–2012

The announcement of the Environment Committee issued on 11 July states that “The benchmarks for each Member State will be set on the basis of a “forest reference level” – an estimate of the average annual net emissions or absorption resulting from managed forest land within the territory of that member state. It should be based on documented management practices between 2000 and 2012, say MEPs, a more recent period than proposed by the Commission (1990–2009). Considering Finland, the proposal of the Commission would have been better, as the carbon sink of forests, i.e. trees and forest land, was five million tonnes lower then than it was in 2000–2012.

The proposal also deals with the intensity of forest use, i.e. the ratio between felling and tree volume in commercial forests. In Finland, this figure has been three per cent on average, regardless of whether the reference period is 1990–2009 or 2000–2012. Therefore, the calculated reference level will lead to logging of 66 million cubic metres in Finland. In other words, a higher logging volume can be regarded as emissions.

In addition, the proposal emphasises the importance of coarse woody debris and the soil in maintaining biodiversity as a large carbon storage.  In Finland, the carbon balance of forest land has developed and is developing in a positive direction. Emissions of peat lands have halved from the level of 1990 and the carbon sink of mineral soil has increased.

Large differences in the intensity of forest use between EU states

During the proposed reference period, forests in different countries were in different development phases and cycles.

During the proposed reference period, forests in different countries were in different development phases and cycles. In Spain, the difference between tree growth and removal was the highest in proportion, as growth was three times higher than the logging volume. However, this proposal guides Spain to not increase the logging volume, even though this will increase the volume of over-dense forests and forest fire risks. The proposal does not regard reductions in the carbon sinks of forests resulting from natural disasters as emissions.

Canada has already followed the example of the EU and removed emissions resulting from fires from its forest GHG balances. As a result, forests have become calculated carbon sinks, even though the net emissions of commercial forests into the atmosphere were approximately 20 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent in 2004–2014.

Sweden can continue its high-intensity forest use, similarly to Estonia, the Czech Republic and Austria, where removal was close to growth during the entire reference period. In these countries, the volume and allocation of logging have been affected by massive forest destructions, such as the Gudrun storm in Sweden and Estonia and the resulting insect outbreaks, and the European spruce bark beetle which has widely plagued spruces in the Czech Republic and Austria.

In these two latter countries, nearly half of all industrial wood comes from areas with damaged forests. The logging volume should be increased in order to replace spruce by tree species that better withstand climate change. In its current form, it is difficult to see that the proposal of the Environment Committee supports good forest management and increases the ability of forests to withstand climate change.

Can forest management and increased wood importing volume offer a solution to reduce the calculated carbon debt?

Norbert Lins, Member of the European Parliament, who was principally responsible for drafting the proposal of the Environment Committee, states in a press release: “I don’t want to put forests in a glass case!” Forests need to be managed in a sustainable and active way providing timber and climate change mitigation.”

In principle, this supports the idea of taking forest management needs into account. Finland also has management debts of a million hectares, and their compensation requires additional logging.

According to calculations made by Natural Resources Institute Finland, growth can be increased by regenerating forests and improving the efficiency of their management, but the results of these activities will only be visible after 2030, apart from fertilisation.

According to calculations made by Natural Resources Institute Finland, growth can be increased by regenerating forests and improving the efficiency of their management, but the results of these activities will only be visible after 2030, apart from fertilisation.

Natural growth of our forests could slightly improve this situation, as it is based on forest management carried out in previous years and the growth-accelerating effect caused by climate change.

Importing 15–20 million cubic metres of wood per year in place of the current 10 million cubic metres would offer a partial solution, as this would correspond with the volume imported during the reference period.  As a result, the removal of forests in Finland will decrease and the carbon sink will increase.

This will not change the volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but it would reduce Finland’s potential carbon debts to the EU, meaning that Finland would not need to buy emissions rights for the LULUCF sector. For example, we could import raw wood from Canada and Russia, as their calculated carbon sinks allows them to sell wood to other countries. This would be an example of carbon leakage in the land use sector. A recent study based on global wood sector model showed that if EU limits its harvests due to LULUCF policies by e.g. 119 Mm3, 79% of harvest leaks to the rest of the world.

The size of carbon sinks of wood products depends on the calculation methods

The inclusion of wood products in regulations has been considered to be positive. A significant volume of carbon contained by trees transfers to wood products. By using different calculation methods and definitions of the calculation start date, Finland’s wood products range from emissions of a few million tonnes to sinks of more than ten million carbon dioxide tonnes.

For the sake of the reference level principle, forests in most EU states will become emission sources if the logging volume is increased due to the needs of bioeconomy or to improve the ability of forests to withstand climate change.  At the same time, we can forget the growth goals of wood-based bioeconomy and energy production. In any case, the increasing use of wood will result in significant costs for states.

The development of climate-smart forest management and extensive forestation programmes, also in countries outside the EU, are possibly the only activities that without a doubt produce climate benefits. We need to invest heavily in studying and deploying these options. In addition, Finland needs to reassess the actions it needs to take to reach its emission reduction goals of 38 per cent, as carbon sinks in our land use sector are becoming debts in the EU’s greenhouse gas ledgers.

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