Some EU Member States’ forests are absorbing strikingly less carbon dioxide, and their forests or land use sectors are becoming net emitters as a result. Recently Sweden’s carbon reporting has also pointed to a startling drop in its forests’ capacity to sequester carbon dioxide. The trend shifts the tectonic plates of EU climate targets; it must urgently be factored into land use and climate policies, for example in the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), and set us on a course for close-to-nature forest management.
The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s preliminary 2021 data revealed that its forests’ net carbon storage had plummeted from 30 to 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. A Swedish newspaper reports that, except for the aftermath of a devastating 2005 storm, in 2021 forest harvests in Sweden increased to levels never seen before. In that article, Sweden’s representative to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Professor Markku Rummukainen noted that Sweden’s carbon sink remains significant, but the margin for error is now gone; stabilising the severe decrease depends on halting increases in logging. Restoring wetlands and avoiding clearcuts are another important part of the solution.
With this news, Sweden joins other EU Member States discovering that, partly due to poor forest management, their land use plans now fail to square with climate targets.
Earlier this year (FW 276), Finland’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory showed for the first time that emissions from deforestation and organic soils were greater than the forest sink, making Finland’s land use sector a net emitter of carbon dioxide. The news surprised everyone, scientists and foresters alike, and Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) carbon calculations were thrown off when the ‘-18 megaton (Mt) carbon sink’ became a 2Mt emitter. Updates to earlier data may reveal that Finland’s land use sector had become a source of emissions even earlier than suspected.
Professor Markku Ollikainen, chair of the Finnish Climate Panel, considers Finland’s very high harvesting rates to be the culprit, but also advances a hypothesis unpopular with the forest industry: trees are being cut too young, before a vital growth phase during which they absorb considerable amounts of carbon dioxide.
In nearby Estonia, not just the land use sector but forests themselves have shifted from carbon sinks to net carbon sources. This, due to excessive felling – including in its Natura 2000 protected areas, prompting EU infringement proceedings – to supply relentless demand for wood pellets: Estonia is currently overtaking Latvia as the largest exporter of wood pellets in Europe.
In Ireland, the National Forest Accounting Plan required by LULUCF concluded that Ireland’s managed forests shifted from sink to source of carbon dioxide years ago, over the period 2012-17 (FW 260). Here, not only are increased harvesting and younger forests to blame, but also draining carbon-rich peatlands and, according to local non-governmental organisations, planting the wrong trees in the wrong places.
Researchers and scientists concur that dramatically reducing forest harvests is the low-hanging fruit to address this plummet in carbon absorption, producing immediate benefits for both climate and biodiversity.
But more is now required to accommodate this emerging trend. EU forests were expected to store at least 18.7 per cent less carbon than in the early 2000s – but that is without considering the unexpected, such as more EU Member States being caught off guard by a drop in its forests’ ability to absorb carbon dioxide.
Carbon accounting is complex, and such ‘surprises’ diminish our ability to set sensible targets. As RED negotiations move into trilogue negotiations (FW 279), establishing a wide margin of safety must be a priority in order to protect present and future generations.