Forest debate: Forests are important for climate change – but reducing fossil emissions is still key

When forest has grown older after the young stand phase it has reached a level of good growth and it is a good carbon sink as well.

”Amidst its current hardships, the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia is probably quite pleased that all of us here are discussing forests instead of what lies at the heart of the climate change,” said Professor Pekka Kauppi. ”The role of forests as a buffer against climate change is important, but that buffer is mostly found in natural forests,” said Researcher Sampo Soimakallio.

In October, an event called Forest Debate was organized by the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, including two forest-related debates. In one of them, Pekka Kauppi, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Protection, and Sampo Soimakallio, Researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute, debated on the effect of timber harvesting on the carbon sinks of forests.

In the other, Sini Harkki, Programme Manager of Greenpeace Nordic in Finland, and Jussi Kumpula, Executive Director of the state forestry company Metsähallitus Metsätalous, debated on continuous-cover and periodic-cover silviculture. The debates were moderated by Janne Impiö, Director of Communication at the Ministry.

Read about the debate between Harkki and Kumpula here.

Importance of carbon sinks increases

What would climate-wise forest and land use look like in Finland? Kauppi: ”Briefly, well harmonized and thanks to that, as effective as possible.”

Soimakallio: ”I’m sure there is a way to use forests that is optimal in terms of mitigating the climate change, but do we, or will we ever, understand what that would be like? The question is difficult to evaluate because of several dynamic relationships, such as how timber harvesting affects the carbon storage of forests and how to replace fossil raw materials with wood.”

What would be your advice to politicians on how to include forests in a sustainable climate policy? Soimakallio: ”So far, the carbon sinks of forests and the level of loggings have played no role in international climate policy. But this may change when the connection between timber harvesting and carbon sinks is better understood. The steering tools related to this must be put in place. As a result, the situation may change.”

Kauppi: ”At my age people tend to be grumpy and bad-tempered, but as regards this, I don’t feel grumpy at all. I am pleased with the development of the forest sector in Finland, in Europe and globally. The world’s population has doubled during my lifetime, but at the same time, a carbon sink the size of the fossil emissions of the European Union has been created in the world’s forests.”

”On the other hand, the world’s fossil emissions have only continued to increase. Bearing that in mind, I would not demand great changes in how forests are managed. I bet that the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia, amidst its hardships, is probably quite pleased that all of us here are discussing forests instead of what lies at the heart of the climate change.”

Forests are important but Finland is small

Kauppi: ”So in terms of the whole world, we are talking about fine tuning, but if there is something Finns could do better, then that might be, for instance, to renovate our 13 pulp mills, whose average age is relatively high. This would be another step in the direction that we have found to lead to results.”

Soimakallio: ”Forests sequester one third of the global carbon dioxide emissions. The significance of forests as a buffer against climate change is essential, but that buffer is mostly found in natural forests.”

”We have to increase the carbon sinks required to offset human activity to a level that equals a quarter of the fossil emissions. In doing this, we cannot appropriate the sinks in natural forests to our own use. They have a life of their own.”

”The actual work to increase the sinks must be done somewhere other than natural forests. How this should be done and by whom, is a question that hasn’t even been touched upon in international climate policy.”

Pekka Kauppi and Sampo Soimakallio. Photo: Anna Kauppi

Europe is at the lead, but is anyone following?

Is the perspective in Finnish debate as it should be? Ought we to pay more attention to the global scale? Kauppi: ”I suppose it’s appropriate for us to look to our own affairs and then, if we are able to contribute to international cooperation, so much the better.”

Soimakallio: ”The main goal, however, is clear, it is to reduce fossil emissions. Though the role of forests is important, it cannot override the need to reduce fossil emissions.”

What is the role of increasing the value added of forest products? Soimakallio: ”The advantages of using wood in construction form a much more complicated entity than of using it for energy. I assume that the effects are better in construction, but the issue is not clear-cut and needs additional examination. The problem is that the life-cycle emissions of oil are relatively low and there aren’t many novel products that create a better advantage for wood than is gained by using it for energy.”

Kauppi: ”The international perspective has not received enough attention in the debate. In actual fact, it is the global demand for wood-based products that determines harvesting levels. If harvesting is cut back in one place, it will increase somewhere else.”

Soimakallio: ”That is definitely the case. According to research (see more here), some 80 percent of the decrease in loggings would lead to a corresponding increase somewhere else. But this finding also reveals that in reality, fossil raw materials and timber don’t compete with each other, because it also says that only 20 percent of the decrease in loggings would be replaced by fossil raw materials. And this should change if we want to replace fossil economy with bioeconomy.”

”Also, there is the question whether we should wait until everybody gets going or whether to take the lead.”

Kauppi: ”We’ve already taken the lead, the whole of Europe has.”

We need to safeguard the stability of forest carbon storages

Kauppi: ”We ought to ask how stable the forest carbon storage actually is. There were huge forest fires in Sweden and Germany last summer, as well as in British Columbia in Canada this year and the year before.”

”We haven’t had forest fires of that extent in Finland. We should ask ourselves whether this is just good luck or are there other reasons behind this. We should be able to determine how reliable our forecasts of the future of forest carbon storages are.”

Why are researchers’ opinions on harvesting so polarized? Soimakallio: ”Well, being an engineer, I have not analysed who has what standpoint. One important choice is the time span over which we examine the carbon sinks. Research cannot express an opinion on whether the time span should be short or long. That is something for the politicians to decide.”

Kauppi: ”Exactly. I just have this problem regarding the forest sector that I am pleased with how it has developed. I am happy that the forests grow well enough not only to allow harvesting, but also to allow recreation, carbon sinks and increasing the amount of decayed wood.”

Soimakallio: ”What I want to see is where we are now and how we should go on. And, regrettably, it seems to be very difficult to argue for increased loggings by saying that they are good for the climate.”

Kauppi: ”Maybe the key thing in all this is the growth of the timber stock. That, after all, determines what we are able to leave to nature. And that must be the most important thing, according to any model.”

Author

Hannes Mäntyranta

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