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23 June 2016

Conference to reconcile different views on climate effects of forests

The question of what impact forests have on the climate has newly become more topical. This is due not least to the assertion by some researchers that forestry in Europe is contributing to global warming instead of reducing it. Reactions from the research community have been strong and the Future Forests programme is therefore arranging a conference to find out the true situation.

How forests affect the climate has been discussed many times. The issue recently came to the fore after an article in the journal Science claimed that forestry is driving climate change rather than vice versa as has long been generally thought.

The article promptly gave rise to an intensive debate in the research community. An email forum was created in which some 70 scientists from large regions of the world emphatically argued their cases.

‘The debate rapidly became polarised and hardly capable of advancing the issue — not so much owing to our differing views as to our using terms in varying ways and basing them on different assumptions, so that we were on different wavelengths,’ says Tomas Lundmark, Professor of Forest Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), who works in Future Forests.

The only way of getting the discussion into line was for all the stakeholders to meet, Lundmark thought. No sooner said than done: jointly with Future Forests and the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry, he invited all the forestry representatives and counterparties to a seminar in Stockholm on 22 June.

‘The hope is to gain better mutual understanding and literally see eye to eye.’

The delegates include many names of international renown. Two of these are Kim Naudts and Sebastiaan Luyssaert, who wrote the above-mentioned Science article about the bearing of forests on climate. The other side are represented by such researchers as Pekka Kauppi and Gert-Jan Naaburs, who were among those who drew up an IPCC report that expresses the view that active forestry is an effective means of counteracting climate change.

The vehemence of reactions to the article in Science may be due to the existence of a long-standing, relatively broad consensus in the research community that biomass is a sustainable, carbon-neutral resource with the capacity to be part of the solution to ongoing climate change. In Sweden and Finland, this view has had particularly solid support, perhaps because we make greater use of our forest than many other countries and it has thus become a significant part of our energy mix.

In describing the climate effects of forestry, one cannot just look at what is going on in actual forests. It is essential also to take into account the fact that many forest products are replacing fossil carbon and oil, and this reduces the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. This is an aspect that’s lacking in many studies,’ Lundmark points out.

‘In Future Forests we used to have a bitter quarrel about whether having more tree species in forests would result in greater growth. By structuring the issue and arranging a seminar at the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry, we were able to reach agreement. The hope is that we can do the same thing again.’

The next newsletter will include a report on whether the scientists succeeded in agreeing about how forests affect climate trends.

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