Finland’s forests fire up debate over EU’s strategy for going green

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Donald Trump was so impressed by Finland’s forestry management that the former US president famously claimed that the Nordic nation had all but eliminated forest fires due to “raking and cleaning”.

The comments may have been met by widespread bemusement in a country that is more covered by forest than any other in Europe. But now Finland’s forests, how they are managed and what their wood is used for, are in the middle of a battle about the EU’s green strategy and its commitment to more than halve carbon emissions by 2030.

The fight has split politicians and public opinion in the Nordic country, and mobilised everybody from companies to environmentalists across Europe. At its heart, the disagreement is about how forests should be used in attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Should they primarily be viewed as carbon sinks that are also important for biodiversity, as environmentalists claim? Or, as big companies and the Finnish government suggest, should forests also be seen as a source of possible replacements for fossil fuels and their uses in everything from chemicals to energy?

There is little doubt about the crucial nature of woodland in Finland, where 73 per cent of the landmass is covered by trees and more than 10 per cent of the population owns some forest.

“It is very deep in our genes. In virtually every family there is a forest owner,” said Stefan Sundman, head of public affairs at UPM, Finland’s largest forestry company

Sundman noted how processing wood started the industrialisation of Finland in the 19th century and that even after a downturn for paper and pulp companies in recent years, the forestry sector still accounts for a fifth of the country’s approximately $70bn of annual exports.

A commercial pine forest in Kisko © Bloomberg

Companies such as UPM are trying to reinvent themselves, moving away from producing paper to positioning wood as a biomaterial capable of being turned into fuel, construction equipment, textiles and more. UPM is investing €550m in a chemicals factory in Germany to convert wood into biochemicals and is looking at the feasibility of a €1bn biofuel facility that could produce aviation fuel.

But when a draft of the EU’s new forestry strategy was leaked in June and said little about wood-based products and a lot about how forests should be used as carbon sinks, Finland’s vast lobbying efforts in the sector sprang to life.

“The leaked draft of the EU forest strategy was so problematic that member states had to react strongly with a common message,” Jari Leppa, Finland’s minister for agriculture and forestry, told the Financial Times.

Leppa added that the draft had threatened the transformation of Finland’s industry by failing to endorse the role wood could play in bioenergy and “shortlived products”.

“EU policy should encourage the replacement of fossil products with renewable materials. We must remember the main problem is fossil fuels. Forests are never a source of emissions,” he added, stressing that forests provided carbon sinks to cover half of Finland’s emissions.

The issue also caused tensions within Finland’s broad five-party coalition government that has promised ambitious climate targets without achieving much concrete action yet.

The disagreement pitted Leppa’s Centre party — which is strong in rural areas — against its partners, the more urban Greens. Maria Ohisalo, the Green interior minister, decried Centre’s lobbying of Brussels as “intolerable”.

Timber rafting on Lake Saimaa in Finland
Timber rafting on Lake Saimaa © De Agostini via Getty Images

Still, the pushback worked. The EU’s final forestry strategy, published in mid-July, was more favourable towards Finland, making allowances for the possibility of wood products being used to replace fossil ones.

Furthermore, the controversial clear-cutting technique that is much used in the Nordics — where all trees in an area are felled, leaving desolate landscapes reminiscent of battlegrounds from the first world war — should be “approached with caution” but they were not outlawed, as the leaked draft had hinted they should be.

Sini Erajaa, agriculture and forestry campaigner at Greenpeace’s EU unit, is far from impressed with the final version, arguing that Finland and its neighbour Sweden succeeded in watering down the EU’s strategy to protect corporate and economic interests.

“Are we really sure that the interests of one industrial sector are in the interests of Finland? For countries like Finland that are meant to have a climate-progressive government, I really wish they would get over being a crybaby and blocking everything,” she added.

Erajaa argued that wood could not replace all fossil fuels, and that forests needed to be turned away from purely being “wood-producing farms”.

Leppa and the forestry industry disagree. They suggest that forests can be both carbon sinks and, by using active management, the source of wood-based products that they claim are renewable substitutes for oil, gas, and coal.

“You can’t look at forests only as forests. You can replace fossil consumption through the forest. How to integrate that value chain into the strategy is lacking,” said UPM’s Sundman.

Whether wood-based biomass is an effective green fuel remains contentious. Either way, Leppa argued that Brussels’ strategy should stick to the big picture of what forests can be, and not get too involved in the details of forestry management or which products can be made from wood or not.

“It can’t be that climate is the only consideration, even if it is important,” he added.

Climate Capital

Finland’s forests fire up debate over EU’s strategy for going green

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