Finnish Minister of Agriculture and the Environment Mr. Kimmo Tiilikainen says the Ministry cannot shoulder the responsibility for neglected forest management work. ”Increasing the forest owner’s freedom of choice in forestry is a move in the right direction. However, we should bear in mind that freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility,” says Tiilikainen.
In recent times, messages encouraging good forestry have seldom been heard from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry; in fact, the opposite has mostly been the case. An example of this is the new Forest Act, which changes the basis of forestry operations from ensuring the supply of raw wood material to safeguarding an individual forest owner’s freedom of choice.
This legislative shift has not decreased the volume of outstanding forest management operations and may actually have increased it. At the moment, only half of young seedling stands and one third of grown-up ones, as well as one fifth of young forest stands, are in a good condition from the viewpoint of forestry.
Tiilikainen admits this to be the case, but he says that authorities have few tools to improve the situation. ”Essentially, the only steering tool are the state subsidies for forestry activities,” he says.
On the other hand, the subsidies channelled through the Act of Financing Sustainable Forestry are to be decreased. According to Tiilikainen, this is due to the general cutbacks in government spending.
However, from the viewpoint of society in general the subsidies could be regarded as investments, because they are offset by increased tax revenues. In this sense the subsidies could be linked to the need to carry out forestry operations rather than to state finances.
According to Tiilikainen, this is actually how the matter is viewed. ”In practice, if the budget allocation for subsidies has been too small, we have passed a supplementary budget to cater for this. Or if the take-up has been less than the allocation, we have transferred the surplus to the following year,” says Tiilikainen.
Climate policy calls for forest energy
The Finnish Government announced its key projects to stimulate bioeconomy the day before our interview. Tiilikainen stresses that their purpose is to search for new directions, and this inevitably begs the question of why so much is invested in renewable energy.
The bulk of the investment is based on an old acquaintance, the forest energy. If change is being looked for, why does the Government invest in production that could not survive at all without state subsidies and which clearly has the smallest value added among all forest products?
Tiilikainen cites climate policy as the reason. ”More and more ambitious targets will be imposed. Each country will meet them by whatever methods they deem the most appropriate. The problem is that the trade in carbon emissions has no steering effect on energy production because of the current low prices of emission quota,” says Tiilikainen.
In other words, you must burn timber to meet the commitments, and this will not come to pass without state subsidies. ”But I really hope that, in the Paris Climate Conference next December, we will reach an agreement that makes the emissions trade more effective. In the long run the only possible way ahead is this, instead of state subsidies,” says Tiilikainen.
Then again, the forest sector is constantly developing new ways to use wood as material. If these lead to new products, as everyone hopes and believes, the new production chains will be much better placed to pay a good price for timber than a bioenergy sector relying on subsidies.
If these hopes become a reality, we may find that the timber supply is not large enough to cover the production of bioenergy within the time frame in the Government plans; in 2050, for example.
Tiilikainen points out that for the time being at least, the use of timber for energy production and as material are not mutually exclusive and there is enough timber for both. It is nevertheless clear that the development of new forest products aims particularly at increasing the value added of forestry production.
This being so, should not the state subsidies to the bioenergy sector be directed to improving the production chains instead of actual production? ”It is difficult to disagree. On the other hand, the key bioeconomy projects do not support production as such, and if they are successful, they may even decrease the production subsidies,” says Tiilikainen.
Role of forests is increasing in climate policy
The Finnish Forest Association published a pamphlet at the end of 2014, highlighting the potential offered by the Nordic model of forest management for climate policy: forests can be simultaneously used as a source of renewable wood raw material and an increasing storage of carbon, as has been done in Sweden and Finland after WWII. Is Finland going to advocate this model in international climate policy and if so, where?
Tiilikainen sees this as something well worth promoting. ”But before that we will have to reach a framework agreement on what we are looking for in the Paris meeting,” Tiilikainen says.
He will also take the matter up at the next meeting of the European Union’s ministers of the environment, with countries that have interests similar to Finland’s. He sees this as a possible opening for Finnish know-how as well.
”Recognizing the significance of forests requires that we are well informed about the state of our forests. I believe that within 5–10 years, thanks to the development of remote sensing methods, we will have quite accurate information of the world’s forest resources,” Tiilikainen says.
However, Tiilikainen points out that the primary objective of climate policy is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. ”Increasing the volume of biomass is the only means of removing atmospheric carbon. In the longer run it will obviously become a part of how we manage the atmosphere,” says Tiilikainen.
EU member states should harmonise their building codes
Tiilikainen has repeatedly expressed his support for the sawmilling industries. How does he see this in concrete terms?
”What I have wished to bring up is that the problems of our forest sector will not be swept away by one new pulp mill,” says Tiilikainen – referring to the largest-ever forest industry investment in Finland, under construction in Äänekoski, Central Finland. For Tiilikainen, more or less the opposite is true: a pulp mill needs sawmills in order to safeguard its supply of raw material.
”However, forest industry operates on commercial markets. Politicians can only be involved by creating better business environments. Still, there are many ways of doing that,” says Tiilikainen.
”We have, for example, invested in transport infrastructure, which benefits the transport of both raw materials and products. The supply of wood raw material on the markets will be assisted by making it easier to hand over forest farms to the next generation, by limiting the period within which death estates must be distributed and by encouraging forest farms to extend their scope and operate more like other private enterprises,” says Tiilikainen.
Tiilikainen has also expressed his desire to harmonize the building codes not only within Finland, but also with other countries. At the moment, the variation of codes within the EU is more or less the kind of obstacle to free trade and export that the Union is designed to remove.
”Finland would be capable of exporting much more, if only these barriers were done away with,” says Tiilikainen.
But aren’t such matters precisely what politicians should work on? ”Yes. This could be Finland’s task in the European Union. The Government and the industries have a common interest here. Still, we should remember that Finland makes up just one percent of the Union,” says Tiilikainen.
One of the major projects on Tiilikainen’s desk was inherited from the previous cabinet: the act regulating the state forest company Metsähallitus. It should come into effect from the beginning of April 2016, so that the plan is to bring the bill to the Parliament in October. Tiilikainen is doubtful as to whether this can be achieved, though he agrees that the ultimate deadline must be before year’s end.
According to rumours, the bill being prepared is more or less the same as that rejected by the previous cabinet. Is this really true? ”The basic line remains the same: the demand for neutrality regarding commercial competition and a reform of the management structure. And I can guarantee that we will treat the matter with the seriousness it merits,” Tiilikainen says.
April is not that far ahead, however. Will it be a disaster if the act cannot enter into force then? ”That is another thing we will discuss during the work to come,” says Tiilikainen.
”Nature management is the foundation of biodiversity work”
State funding for the forest biodiversity programme Metso is also going to be decreased. Despite this, Tiilikainen thinks that protecting biodiversity is indispensable.
”If our target is to increase the volume of timber harvesting by 15 million cubic metres annually and we fail to reach our biodiversity targets, we will obviously have some explaining to do,” says Tiilikainen.
However, cutting back the funding for the Metso programme does not mean the end of forest protection. Tiilikainen goes on to say something that has never been uttered by a Finnish Minister for the Environment: ”Effective forest biodiversity work is based on the management of nature in commercial forests and forest certification, because 90 percent of the Finnish forests are commercial forets.”
Strict forest protection only comes in third place. “And nobody is going to give up nature management or certification. The forest sector is unanimous about biodiversity management being a demand from the market,” says Tiilikainen.
The share of endangered species among all species surveyed has remained the same in the two most recent Finnish surveys in 2000 and 2010. This allows the conclusion that a positive trend has already emerged.
According to researchers, the most important reason for this is that the forest certification requires retention trees to be left on all regeneration felling sites. ”That is just the point. These actions have an effect. And after we have weathered the present crisis in state finances we will be able to increase the Metso funding again,” says Tiilikainen.
Among the Government’s key bioeconomy projects, the only investment in forest biodiversity is the new national park to be established for the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence in 2017. If the goal really is to improve the protection of biodiversity, does this mean that the park will be established in a commercial forest?
”No, that would be a faulty conclusion,” says Tiilikainen.