Forest management – a missed opportunity in climate policy

Peter Holmgren

By Dr. Peter Holmgren – Senior Advisor FutureVistas Inc. – Skebobruk, Sweden

Actively managed forest landscapes make enormous contributions towards the climate solutions that we need. But structures and discourse in climate policy are surprisingly counterproductive. Partly because climate action in forests is mostly thought of as a form of conservation. Partly because of a global fixation in politics, science and activism on deforestation– which in a way is the opposite of forest management. Partly because of inert constructs established by climate science and climate negotiations that separate forests from forest product value chains and thereby miss out on huge opportunities.

Here’s some further background and some thoughts on this topic.

Recently, the annual update of the net sink in Swedish forests was published. This is the regular input to the National Inventory Report provided by many countries to the UNFCCC every year. Swedish forests continue to be a large net sink with a net uptake by trees and soil standing at 35 Mt CO2/yr or 3.5 tons per capita, corresponding to two thirds of Sweden’s territorial emissions. This has been the story for many years – since long before there was a climate change convention. It is the enduring effect of long-term investments in forest management and the forest-based sector that enhance forest growth, eliminate damages and keeps harvests well below the growth.

But what about the rest of the world?

For the European Union as a whole, the net forest sink is close to 400 Mt CO2/yr corresponding to 10% of EU’s fossil emissions. Forests in Europe are overall actively managed and the wood harvest is substantial, and at the same well below (about 2/3) of the growth. This is not, however, the full story of climate solutions from EU’s managed forests.

European forest products also displace another 400 MtCO2/yr of fossil emissions. This is the amount of fossils that stay in the ground because we use renewable biomass instead. Paper- not plastics. Wood – not cement. Bioenergy – not coal.

So the total positive effect of the EU forest-based sector is 0,8 GtCO2/yr or equal to 20% of EU fossil emissions. This is a lot. And it could be much more if we were to invest further in innovation, efficiency gains and integrated value chains.

Worldwide wood use is about 8 times that of EU – almost all from managed forests delivering a net sink as well as raw material for forest products that displace fossils. So, in all we seem to get in the range of 5 Gt/yr help from the forest-based sector in solving the climate problem. This is significant given that overall global emissions stand at 40 Gt/yr.

So why do we not hear more about forestry as a big part of the climate solution? Or the huge potential to increase climate benefits from the forest-based sector even more? Essentially for four reasons:

First, when IPCC presents its authoritative global models they don’t count management of forests (see section A3.3 on page 11 of the Climate Change and Land report) and they don’t connect forest product performance to the forest, or to the fundamental circularity of the bioeconomy. Instead, tree removals become the entire forest story and forestry is stated to be “11% of the climate problem”. Quite the opposite of common sense.

Secondly, the forest story (and intergovernmental forest funding) is fixed on deforestation and attempts to reduce this phenomenon. True, this is a big deal and bad for the climate. But it is not managed forests. It is almost entirely about agriculture encroaching into unmanaged forests. This should not be confused with managed forest landscapes.

Third, the concerns over forest biodiversity loss are often uncritically correlated with concerns over climate change. This funnels opposition to forestry with the idea that wood harvesting leads to both biodiversity loss and negative climate impact. But active forest management includes care for the natural environment. Legislation & control systems are in place. Concerns may be exaggerated. And as we have seen above, managed forests are net sinks and mitigate climate change.

Fourth, climate solutions are only considered solutions if they are “additional”. That is, they only count if a dedicated climate action was taken. So a tree that is planted for climate mitigation first counts, but a tree planted for forestry doesn’t.

This “additionality” principle is a major obstacle. Demanding exclusivity of climate benefits doesn’t go well with multi-purpose forestry activities. But this stronghold of climate policy is there to secure that climate funds are only used on the climate.

Fair enough, so-called “co-benefits” are recognized. That is, it’s ok if there are collateral benefits, eg to the local economy. But this is a one-way street. Climate as a co-benefit of, say, forestry is not part of the climate policy discourse.

The advantage of getting climate benefits “for free” because investments and financial performance in the forest-based sector works well in its own right is therefore not well accepted. It can even be seen as unfair competition that dumps the prices on an otherwise lucrative climate action market.

So here we are. A very big, and potentially much bigger, part of the solution – the forest-based sector – is largely sidelined by structures and policy discourse in climate politics.

Do we have time to wait for climate talks to change this? …

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