Published 2018-06-26

This post is also available in Swedish

Intensive forestry may benefit climate

How forests should be used has long been discussed.
The question is whether to maximise their economic value, or whether soil and vegetation should be used as a tool in climate management.
To work out the potential of the forest, not least as a carbon sink, a number of international researchers were invited to the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry to discuss the matter. One assertion was that intensive forestry is better for the climate than just letting forests be.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping Earth’s temperature rise below 2°C, use of fossil fuels must decrease.

This far, almost everyone agrees.

Significantly harder is to know which road takes us there. We must know how best to use biomass, especially that taken from our forests. Harvest or leave it? That is the highly simplified question.

Already, bioenergy is the renewable energy source we use most in the EU today. And to meet existing targets for renewable energy up to 2020, the increase in the past few years has been substantial.

With the support of Mistra and others, three Swedish academies held a conference in mid-March, to highlight the consequences of this raised demand and open up a dialogue on forests and climate. These three were the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (KVA) and the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA). One purpose of the conference, entitled Forests and the climate — manage for maximum wood production or leave the forest as a carbon sink?’, was to identify some basic principles for forests’ role and their capacity as a resource in climate work. Another purpose was to think about what advice the research community could give to decision makers in this area.

Researchers from several countries gathered. During the two-day conference, they were able both to share their research findings and to discuss issues where a full consensus does not always prevail.

The starting point was that the interplay between forests and the climate system is complex. However, it is clear that climate change affects forests, while the forest industry in turn affects the greenhouse gas balance. The forest can both serve as a carbon sink and provide products that, in turn, store carbon dioxide and reduce the need for fossil products.

Forests also have the ability to affect the climate more indirectly by, for example, reflecting sunlight back into space instead of letting it warm Earth’s surface.

In the field, however, there are various heated debates about how forests and forestry methods affect the climate. One reason for the divergence may be that researchers often view the forest from different perspectives and entry points. Even if each may be correct from a narrow point of view, the divergent approaches lead to confusion among decision makers and the public alike. This in turn makes it difficult for them to judge which decisions are right and proper.

The conference was thus intended to start a dialogue on the role of forests and clarify various existing views. There was also a wish to see where in-depth knowledge is needed to enable a more modern view of forests and climate to be promoted.

Leif Gustavsson, Professor at Linnaeus University, can symbolise one side. His view is that a high biomass harvesting rate in forests, provided that biomass replaces fossil products and fuels, would yield significant climate benefits (compared with a reduced rate) and thus greater carbon sequestration in forests.

Gert-Jan Nabuurs, Professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said that the question of whether we should go in for increased forest production, or create carbon sinks, is in fact incorrectly formulated.

‘It’s more about what we should do where. Today, wood-based biomass accounts for about 6 per cent of primary energy use. It’s possible to increase this figure to over 10 per cent. But to achieve it, Europe’s countries must consider the many different functions of forests and create a balance between areas under active management and those that can serve as a carbon sink.’

‘If wood and biomass are to be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, forests must be managed sustainably. But the climate benefits claimed for biomass must also be based on verifiable, credible documentation,’ said Werner Kurz, Senior Research Scientist at the Canadian Forest Service.

‘If we manage that, biomass could play a key long-term role in bringing about net-negative greenhouse gas emissions.’

Researcher presentations took up a day and a half. Representatives of industry, government agencies and politics were then given a half-day to discuss what should be done. This discussion will probably continue in various contexts but now, it is hoped, with a more substantial research foundation.

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Shortly after the seminar, the Government decided on a strategy for Sweden’s national forest programme. The main thrust of the programme is to create a broad dialogue on the role of forests in a sustainable society and a growing bioeconomy.

Read more here.