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A clear-cut in Sweden. Photo: Agnetha Lundberg/Swedish Association for Nature Photographers.

Sweden presents itself as a global torchbearer on the environment, but its forest policy is wreaking havoc. The EU must act to stop it, say five NGOs from different EU countries.

Sweden is consistently ranked near or at the top of the world’s most environmentally-friendly industrial nations. The International Energy Agency (IEA) calls the country a “global leader in building a low-carbon economy”.

However, when it comes to Swedish forests – which cover almost 70% of the country – it is a very different story.

Sweden is the world’s third largest exporter of paper, pulp and sawn wood products. The country promotes itself as a paragon of sustainable forestry practices. But this is an illusion on a grand scale.

In truth, old, natural forests are more scarce in Sweden than ever before. Sweden still holds a considerable proportion of the remaining high conservation value forests of northwestern Europe but the area is decreasing. About 2.7 million hectares of productive forest land below the mountain region in Sweden is estimated to consist of continuity forests which lack formal protection and have never been subject to clear-felling.

Natural forests are systematically being clear-cut to acquire supposedly sustainable wood products and bioenergy, and replaced by even-aged tree plantations, poor of species. The climate crisis is being used by the Swedish forest industry as an excuse to increase its forest harvest and production rates.

Over 90 % of all forests in Sweden have already been affected by forestry in some way. According to official reporting under the EU Habitats Directive, 14 of 15 forest biotopes in Sweden do not have a favorable conservation status. The on-going logging of these biotopes violates the Habitats Directive which should ensure the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora. In 2010, more than one third of the total fellings did not comply with the basic and general environmental requirements of the Swedish Forestry Act. Mainly due to this habitat destruction, over 1,800 forest-living species are red-listed in Sweden.

Sweden has implemented the EU Bird and Habitats Directive in its Species Protection Ordinance which prohibits the damaging of breeding and resting sites for birds and other species. However, there are obvious flaws in the implementation considering that breeding sites are often affected by forestry, and there are rarely any sanctions.

The EU Timber Regulation prohibits operators in Europe from placing illegally harvested timber and products derived from illegal timber on the EU market. Legal timber is defined as timber that is in compliance with the laws of the country where it is harvested. When Sweden violates the EU nature law and the general requirements of national environmental legislation, where is the line drawn for illegally harvested timber?

Despite the critical forest situation, the Swedish Forest Agency has decided that at the end of 2020 it will stop registering areas classified as ‘woodland key habitats’ when forest areas are notified for felling. A woodland key habitat is a forest area that is of major importance for the flora and fauna, which often harbors endangered and rare species. According to the Swedish FSC forest certification standard, woodland key habitats must be exempted from felling.

The Swedish Forest Agency has also recently released a report with several measures for intensified forest management. The measures promote increased logging, clearing of ditches and more plantations, instead of preventing biodiversity loss and emissions of greenhouse gases.

When forests are clear-cut, large volumes of greenhouse gases are released from the soil, especially on peat land. In general, there is a pattern of decreasing carbon pools in tree plantations as compared to native forests. In Sweden, over half of the productive forests are young, less than 60 years old.

This year, national and international environmental targets should already have been met. At least 17-20 percent of all of terrestrial areas should be conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas. The rate of loss of all natural habitats should be at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero. Today, only about 6 percent of the productive forest land in Sweden is formally protected.

Forest biodiversity around the world faces grave threats, and Sweden is no exception. Sweden is failing to reach its environmental targets. The potential to achieve these targets is reduced every time there is logging in a high conservation value forest.

In order to stop the on-going degradation of the forest landscape in Sweden, 70 NGOs and 30 scientists have recently sent an open letter to the Swedish Parliament, Government and the Swedish Forest Agency, demanding that forestry is stopped in all high conservation value forests and that the national budget allocated to forest protection is increased. They also demanded that the state-owned forestry company Sveaskog should be given amended owner directives with a lower required rate of return to be able to achieve the environmental targets regarding sustainable forests and biodiversity. Today, Sveaskog has a relatively high required rate of return which tends to make their business more focused on production rather than environment.

We call on the EU to immediately act to make sure that the EU Birds and Habitats Directives is fully implemented in Sweden in order to safeguard natural habitats and wild fauna and flora. The EU also needs to put pressure on Sweden to continue to register woodland key habitats when forest areas are notified for felling after 2020. All forests with high conservation values need to be protected. Furthermore, clear-cutting forestry needs to be phased out and replaced by forestry without clear-cutting methods in forests that do not hold high conservation values.

It is time for the EU to ensure that one of the world's most “environmentally friendly” industrial nations does not harvest its timber illegally - and thereby lives up to its international reputation.

Julian Klein, Spokesperson, Protect the Forest Sweden
Isadora Wronski, Interim Programme Manager, Greenpeace Sweden
Kelsey Perlman, Forest and Climate Campaigner, Fern, EU
Almuth Ernsting, Biofuelwatch, United Kingdom/USA
Jana Ballenthien, Forest campaigner, ROBIN WOOD, Germany

Read the full op-ed iin Euractiv here.