Recent revelations have revealed a dramatic situation in some European forests. Preliminary data from Finland’s forests show they are so diminished that all land sectors combined have for the first time become a net emitter of carbon dioxide, and intensive logging in Estonia has also shifted that country’s forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources. This new reality must motivate decisionmakers at national and EU levels to seize bolder solutions.
Preliminary data from Finland’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory provide an indication of yearly performance toward meeting climate goals. Because of a reduction in forest growth and the second-highest logging in recent history, the preliminary 2021 Estimate indicates that, for the first time, emissions from deforestation and organic soils were higher than the forest sink - Finland’s land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector has become a net emitter of carbon dioxide.
As a result, Finland’s climate targets – thought to be among the world’s strongest – are threatened, and not just a little: the government’s currently debated land use climate plan aims for climate neutrality by 2035. It had estimated that Finnish land would remove about 18 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide. But the ‘-18 Mt sink’ has now become a 2 Mt emitter, leaving a 23 Mt gap that must be closed. In fact, as data for 2020 and previous years are being updated, they may indicate that Finland’s LULUCF sector had become a source of emissions earlier.
A rethink is urgently needed. The Finnish Climate Panel, the Finnish Environmental Institute, the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation and Greenpeace Finland – have all reacted with tremendous concern, and called for a speedy, dramatic ‘climate rescue package’ to be prepared by the autumn.
A forceful response could produce immediate benefits. The impact assessment for the now-outdated land use climate plan had already pointed to solutions: increasing continuous-cover forestry on organic soils, adjusting agricultural methods, increasing conservation, reducing deforestation, and leaving more dead wood in forests.
Most important among these would be to dramatically reduce forest harvests: a reduction of one million cubic meters entails a positive sink effect of -1.5 Mt; reducing even six million cubic metres of harvests would already absorb nine Mt of carbon dioxide. This would still retain harvesting levels at 70 million cubic meters, which is above the2020 level.
Sadly, Finland is not an isolated example. Estonia’s forests were expected to become net carbon emitters only in 2023, but they surpassed negative expectations, becoming net sources in 2020. Researchers with the Estonian Fund for Nature have reached similar conclusions as in Finland: cutting felling volumes produces immediate climate – and biodiversity – benefits.
The world has changed. Finland’s new investments in pulp factories and the end of wood imports from Russia in March will both increase logging pressures. But the climate crisis is harming human populations in their multitudes, and we need to value forests and carbon sinks as the increasingly scarce resources that they are. Scientists agree, the public agree. Currently, however, EU Member State plans are insufficient to create the needed sinks. Decisionmakers, at national and EU level must be brave enough to stand up to forest and agricultural sectors that are living in the past.