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Marc Palahí, Director of the European Forest Institute EFI, considers lack of understanding a great challenge for a strategic discussion on European forests.
“Since there is no EU competence on forest policy, there is also a lack of capacities in the Commission to address forest-related policies and build a strategic understanding on what forests can offer to address important societal challenges like climate change and opportunities like the circular economy and the bioeconomy.”
According to Palahí, the current EU Forest Strategy, currently under mid-term evaluation, has the right content but has not been the strategic reference for EU forest-related policy development.
In order to build a science-informed understanding on European forests, the EFI established ThinkForest, a high-level science-policy forum, to support an informed dialogue on forest policy between policymakers, scientists and stakeholders from various countries as well as with representatives from European Commission and Parliament.
“This has become a good forum for cooperation, funded by more than 10 of the EFI’s member countries that wish to ensure an adequate policy discussion on European forest questions.”
“At EFI, we have prepared a number of influential science-policy reports and organised high-level events chaired by advisors of the EFI, former prime ministers Sweden and Finland, Göran Persson and Esko Aho, to provide decision-makers with the latest research information and expertise and to support forest-related decision-making.
Increased cooperation between European forest countries
According to Palahí, the EFI needs to operate at the interfaces of science, policy and the media.
“For scientists and researchers, communication with policymakers and the media is not always self-evident and easy. But now that there clearly is misinformation and confusion as well as contradictory messages on forest issues, the need for scientists to communicate is more important than ever. In the future, we need more scientists speaking like journalists and, correspondingly, more journalists thinking like scientists.”
EFI’s headquarters has been located in Joensuu, Finland since 1993. The institute is an international organisation, a neutral broker providing science-based knowledge to support decision-makers.
All politicians have their own values, and scientific knowledge should support them in decision-making. In today’s world, obtaining information is not a problem – there is plenty of it. What is lacking is connecting the dots and the synthesis of research information, in a comprehensible form, for policy decisions.
In Palahí’s opinion, European forest countries should cooperate more. Traditional forest countries in particular, such as Finland and Sweden, should intensify their dialogue for example with Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, which are also countries with forests but often view forest issues from a different perspective to the Nordic countries.
Forests can catalyse a synergistic relationship between economy and ecology
“It is difficult to discuss sustainable forestry if ecology and economy are always set as opposites. A sustainable future requires a synergistic relationship between economy and ecology.”
Finland and Sweden are good examples of how forest has been an important economic pillar. In both countries, the forest area has increased over the last century – a good demonstration that economic relevance is an incentive for sustainable forestry.
Palahí is a Doctor of Forest Science from the University of Joensuu. According to him, a trustful, ambitious and effective science-media dialogue is now also needed to raise awareness on the importance of forests within our highly urbanised societies.
“Alongside traditional media, social media is very important and its significance in the dissemination of scientific knowledge is also constantly increasing. We must be active in this.”
“Finland can be a leading country in research into sustainable forestry. Finnish universities could, for example, offer an international master’s degree in bioeconomy, which could combine all the different perspectives of sustainability but also including business education and foresight on future markets and consumer preferences.”
“In that way, Finland would also be branded as a leading country in education and research in bioeconomy,” says Palahi.
A future in wood-based bioeconomy
According to Palahí, the future lies in the kind of bioeconomy that addresses the past failure of economy to value nature and natural capital. The future is not about decoupling growth from environmental degradation but about coupling economy and ecology to build a new economic paradigm to ensure prosperity within our planetary boundaries. Therefore, forest sustainability should also be understood as ecological, economic and social sustainability.
The importance of a forest-based bioeconomy is growing strongly all over the world. The requirement for materials to be low in carbon and low in emissions is coming to construction, textiles, packaging and chemicals. In future, wood-based materials will offer many alternatives to fossil-based and non-renewable raw materials and products.
Palahí says that, in the past 50 years, the production of plastics has increased 20-fold. Approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced per year and 8 million tonnes of that ends up in the sea.
“Plastic is a problem and new materials are needed to replace it. In textiles, polyester is fossil-based and the production of cotton in China and India is consuming water resources and land needed for food production. A more sustainable alternative is found in wood-based textile.”
“The need for textiles is increasing with the growth in middle-class populations. What is happening in China and India with population and consumption growth is also changing the European forest sector. Renewable and recyclable wood-based products will become a true alternative to present fossil-based products and solutions.”
According to Palahí, the growth in construction is also influencing growth in demand for wood products because, from a perspective of climate change, construction needs low-carbon and resource-efficient solutions.
“Concrete and steel construction produce emissions that can be decreased with low-carbon, renewable wood. Population growth means an increase in housing production, and urban construction must increasingly take into account emissions caused by construction. Strong development work in wood construction is now taking place in many countries, and a country like Finland should be involved in this.”