In Dalarna, Sweden’s reputation for protecting nature and promoting sustainable forestry might appear well justified.
Unbroken rows of pine forests, glimmering lakes and jutting mountain ranges dominate a landscape in which bears, lynx and wolverines run wild. Clamber up a rocky trail on Fulufjället mountain in the north-west corner of this sparsely populated central province, and behind a thin rope stands an inauspicious-looking Norwegian spruce. Its root system has been growing for 9,550 years. According to the scientists who tested it in 2004 that makes it the world’s oldest known living tree.
Could the permanence of Old Tjikko, as the spruce is known, symbolise the care with which Sweden safeguards the forests which cover more than half the country?
Sadly, the evidence suggests not.
Bengt Oldhammer, an environmentalist and author, has been monitoring Dalarna’s forests for around 35 years. In that time he has witnessed an alarming transformation. Looking out across the vista of unspoilt young pines, a layperson might be impressed. Oldhammer despairs. That’s because monoculture tree plantations have replaced vast swathes of the boreal old growth and natural forest which has been decimated to feed the country’s timber, pulp and paper industries. It is a pattern repeated across Sweden.
“It’s all clear cutting,” he says gloomily. “It’s the same model as in Indonesia and Borneo, where rainforests are cleared for palm oil plantations.”
The pressure this clear cutting is placing on Sweden’s forests is intensifying because of the country’s growing reliance on burning woody biomass for heat and electricity. In 2013, biomass accounted for 23 per cent of Sweden’s energy, and forest biomass is already integral to the country’s energy system.
This pattern is repeated across the EU, as power plants and heating installations – spurred on by government subsidies - switch from burning coal to burning biomass in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting clean energy targets.
Sourcing this biomass from outside the EU has become increasingly controversial, with Fern and other NGOs sounding the alarm on the destruction it has wreaked, particularly in the South Eastern forests of the US.
Yet as the evidence of the damage to US and other forests mounts, the advocates of burning biomass for energy are falling back on another claim to justify the policy: they maintain that while there may be problems with biomass imports from countries with weak forest laws, these problems don’t exist with biomass from Europe’s forests, because they are managed sustainably.
The sustainable management of forests is determined at national level by EU Member States. While all have adopted the FOREST EUROPE voluntary criteria and indicators on Sustainable Forest Management (SFM), these are little more than a useful starting point. They lack baselines, benchmarks or target levels, as well as key requirements including legality.
In reality, the different understandings and traditions of SFM among Member States, as well as the critical incoherencies between their forest and land-use policies, means that there are huge disparities in how forests are managed across Europe.
In central Europe, for instance, more integrated forest management methods prevail, meaning more selective tree cutting is deployed. In southern Europe, there is a lot of abandoned forest land, which can be good from a biodiversity perspective, but can bring other challenges, relating, for example, to fires or rural development). And in Sweden one finds intensive management of boreal forests, with old growth forests being cleared for monoculture plantations.
This model can be traced back to Sweden’s first Forestry Act, which came into in force in 1903, and required forest owners to continuously regenerate forests after felling them. Since the 1950s clear cutting has become the default method, with one or more trees planted for every one logged. The industry and many others, call this sustainable forest management.
Sweden’s forest sector promotes its methods internationally as highly sustainable, and some industry representatives even maintain that if the world’s forests were managed along Swedish lines, climate change could be averted. From an economic perspective, plantation forests may indeed appear to be sustainable: supplying a constant flow of raw materials and maintaining jobs.
Yet their grim consequences for biodiversity, which Oldhammer and other campaigners spend so much of their time highlighting - and which, more broadly, our survival depends on - are incontestable.
“The Swedish forestry industry has turned enormous areas of pristine forests into vast oceans of production landscapes,” said a 2011 report by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. “As a consequence there is a biodiversity crisis in the Swedish forests.” A huge number of species have been lost or are threatened by Sweden’s forest practices, in particular clear cutting, which is destroying vital habitats and changing ecosystems.
Research by the Swedish Species Information Centre (Artdatabanken) starkly underlines this. According to the centre’s latest figures, almost 4300 different plants and animals are on Sweden’s red list, meaning that they are endangered. More than half of them are forest species, with the majority of those totally reliant on forests for their survival.
A study by the Swedish Forest Agency in 2013, found that 36 per cent of all logging did not comply with the country’s Forestry Act, the principle domestic legislation to protect its forests. This is despite more than half of Sweden’s productive forest area being certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), whose principles state that all certified forests must comply with national laws and regulations, and which have sustainable forest management at their core.
There are few consequences for breaking the law, say local campaigners. “The forest protection laws are weak and they are not properly abided by,” says Viktor Sӓfve, of Protect the Forest (Skydda Skogen). He sees the demand for biomass as just one more threat to Swedish forests.
“Politicians, lobbyists from the forest industry, landowners and biotechnology and energy scientists are all lobbying hard for increased use of biomass and biofuels from Swedish forests,” he says. “But you cannot save nature by first destroying it.”
Sweden is just one case which reveals how the argument that Europe’s sustainable forests can meet its apparently insatiable demand for biomass is a myth.
Yet in many ways, the discussion around SFM and biomass supply is a red herring.
This is because bioenergy sustainability is not solely linked to the way forests are managed in Europe, and making it the focus of debate is a distraction from the policy’s deeper, inherent flaws.
These include how it drives demand for wood - a limited resource - and prevents its most efficient use; how it requires a huge amount of land - which is simply not available; and how burning biomass to generate heat and electricity can actually increase greenhouse gas emissions.
As such, in the words of the writer Bill McKibben, burning biomass for power is the latest in the “parade of false solutions” used to tackle climate change’s existential crisis