A group of scientist: forest bioeconomy criticism has too narrow perspective

17.1.2018 / Article
Photo: Vilma Issakainen

”Considering market realities, sustainable forest management requirements and existing regulations around bioenergy, we do not expect to see a paradigm shift towards large scale cutting of forests solely for bioenergy,” says a group of forestry and environment scientists in their open letter.

The letter is published, for example, on the website of the European Forest Institute. According to one of the signatories, Professor Pekka Kauppi, the largest work upon the letter has been carried out by well-known forest researchers Werner Kurz, Göran Berndes and Lauri Hetemäki.

As to the Finnish point of view, Kauppi wants to emphasize the magnificent development on timber use. ”What we get of the same amount of timber now and previously, it is just astonishing. In 1970s, for example, we just let important parts of trees to flow in rivers in wastewaters, but now we use everything,” he says.

And the development has not been finished, as can be seen from, for example, the Forest bioeconomy future catalogue published by the Finnish Forest Association.

A tree is not the forest

The letter emphasizes the signatories’ belief that bioenergy from sustainably managed commercial forests can contribute positively to climate change mitigation. According to the letter, the narrow view of bioeconomy critics means looking at the forest on a level of single forest stand or even more, a single tree.

From this view you can see only that ”a tree stops growing and accumulating carbon when it is cut, and the carbon stock in a single stand decreases at harvest.” The view overlooks fundamental principles behind forest management, which aims at maintaining the forest growth on a landscape level.

”In the absence of management, forest growth rates decline and disturbance risks increase as trees become mature. Therefore… they have a lower sink strength and may become carbon sources instead of sinks.”

The key is to increase the forest growth, that is, carbon sink, on a landscape level by sustainable harvesting of trees and managing stem densities and species composition. This can be carried out by forestry operations, such as species selection, planting and other management options.

Pekka Kauppi. Photo: Inka Musta

Harvests and growth have increased simultaneously

There are plenty of examples of how to do this, the best one maybe in the Nordic countries. The common factor of these examples is that the carbon stock at a regional or national level has increased simultaneously with increases in harvesting.

Another example are the forests in the European Union, where the carbon sink and harvesting rate have increased simultaneously since the 1960s. As a result, EU forests and the forest sector currently achieve an overall climate change mitigation impact that corresponds to about 13 percent of the total EU greenhouse emissions.

Another, often bypassed fact is that forest bioenergy producing is not an independent enterprise but an integral part of forest use. Bioenergy almost never is the main product, but instead, it utilises the sideflows of, for example, sawn wood, pulp, paper and chemicals.

These sideflows consist of, for example, small trees from thinnings, logging residues, and low-quality wood that is not suitable for the main products. And nobody is planning to change this, mostly because it would be unprofitable: producing bioenergy just does not bring as much revenues as the main products.

Bioenergy does not create overharvesting

This also is the reason why the signatories do not believe in the often expressed danger that the wood demand for bioenergy may rise enormously, threatening the existence of forests. This is not possible as long as bioenergy is produced only from sideflows of more profitable production.

The letter also recalls the Paris Agreement target to withdraw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So far, there are no other tools to do this than enhancing the growth of vegetation.

According to the signatories, ”bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is one of the major options for atmospheric carbon dioxide withdrawal.” Therefore a more balanced perspective towards the role of forest use is needed.

Forest assimilates carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it stores carbon in soils, standing biomass, and in wood-based products, and it helps to avoid greenhouse gas emissions by displacing products that are unfriendly for the climate.

Development of growing stock and removals in Finnish forests. The graph shows that it is possible to increase the timber stock in the forest simultaneously with increasing the loggings.

The letter of the group on the homepage of the European Forest Insitute EFI

Forest bioeconomy future catalogue

The signatories of the open letter are

  • Göran Berndes, Professor in Biomass and Land Use, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden
  • Johan Bergh, Professor in Silviculture, Linnaeus University, Sweden.
  • Annette Cowie, Professor, School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England, Australia
  • Gustaf Egnell, Associate professor in Forest Based Bioenergy, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden.
  • Lauri Hetemäki, Adjunct Professor in Forest Economics and Marketing, University of Helsinki, Finland
  • Pekka Kauppi, Professor in Environmental Science and Policy, University of Helsinki, Finland
  • Madhu Khanna, ACES Distinguished Professor in Environmental Economics, University of Illinois, USA
  • Werner Kurz, Senior Research Scientist, Canadian Forest Service, Canada
  • Marcus Lindner, Principal Scientist, European Forest Institute, Germany
  • Tomas Lundmark, Professor in Silviculture, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden
  • Gert-Jan Nabuurs, Professor, European Forest Resources, Wageningen University, The Netherlands
  • Ralph E. H. Sims, Professor in Sustainable Energy, Massey University, New Zealand
  • Birger Solberg, Professor in Forest Economics, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway
Hannes Mäntyranta

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