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Comment on Euractiv: The forestry practices of today severely damage both climate and biodiversity

Logged woodland key habitat in what was proposed to become a nature reserve close to the lake Risten in the municipality of Åtvidaberg, Sweden. The logging was conducted by Sweden’s largest FSC certified forest owner association, Södra. Photo: Mikael Schulin.

Protect the Forest, Greenpeace Sweden, Fern, Biofuelwatch, Robin Wood and Global Forest Coalition wrote that Sweden’s forest policy is wreaking havoc in an opinion piece in Euractiv on 26 February 2020. Herman Sundqvist, Director-General of the Swedish Forest Agency, replied and wrote that environmental measures in the Swedish forests will continue to be strong. Now, the six NGOs give their side of the story.

Contrary to what Herman Sundqvist, Director-General of the Swedish Forest Agency, claims in an opinion piece in Euractiv, the reality of the Swedish forests and forestry is extremely disturbing. The forestry practices of today severely damage both climate and biodiversity. The Swedish Forest Agency’s work with nature conservation has deteriorated under Sundqvist’s supervision.

In 2017, Director-General Sundqvist suspended the inventory of woodland key habitats in northwestern Sweden. The decision received massive criticism from scientists, officials from the Swedish Forest Agency, the County Administrative Boards, and non-profit conservation organizations. During the one-year long suspension, the Swedish Forest Agency developed a new inventory method for northwestern Sweden, which allowed felling in forest areas which previously were registered as woodland key habitats.

During the last 20 years, it is estimated that about 55 000 hectares of woodland key habitats have been felled in northwestern Sweden. In addition, more than 300 000 hectares of continuity forests, i.e. natural forests that have never been subject to clear-cutting, have been notified for final felling since 2010.

The inventory of woodland key habitats, which is an important tool for mapping high conservation value forests, has been used for almost 30 years in Sweden. It provides necessary information about forest areas which is useful for authorities, scientists, landowners, forest certification organizations and non-profit organizations. The Swedish Forest Agency estimates that it is three times more common that unregistered woodland key habitats are notified for final felling than registered. This clearly shows that inventory and registration of woodland key habitats are important. Studies show that woodland key habitats in general are rich in biodiversity in terms of red-listed species and volume of dead wood. Why stop registering woodland key habitats when they are threatened by logging?

Biodiversity is highly ranked in opinion polls and Swedish people consider it important to protect high conservation value forests from harvesting. The Swedish Forest Agency risks eroding public and international consumer confidence if Director-General Sundqvist continues to dismantle the Agency’s nature conservation work.

The report that Director-General refers to is also heavily criticized by authorities, nature conservation scientists and the environmental movement. The report is strongly influenced by the forest industry and was not reviewed by nature conservation scientists before it was published.

Sundqvist raises misleading examples of nature conservation efforts and tools. In order to meet environmental targets, protected areas need to be long-term, functional and representative. To protect areas of special importance for the conservation of biodiversity is key.

Voluntary set-aside areas are not permanent, lack legal protection and are not always transparent. There are no consequences if these forest areas are cut down. Furthermore, there are no requirements of either ecological quality nor landscape functionality, which both are of utmost importance for protecting biodiversity.

Retention areas where single or a group of trees are left in clear-cut areas cannot be considered as protected forest. Particularly due to the fact that Sweden is internationally obliged to conserve at least 17 percent of the terrestrial land, through long term, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas. It can also be mentioned that unproductive forest land is normally not of interest for the forestry and does not have the same species diversity as high-productive forests.

In addition, about 39 % of the consideration-demanding habitats in Sweden were negatively affected by harvesting during 2014-2017. Hence, the Director-General Sundqvist is not on the right track. The felling of both woodland key habitats and voluntary set-aside areas shows that the Swedish forest policy is highly untrustworthy. Its consequences are devastating; Sweden has never had as few natural forests as of today. The amount of old forest with large-diameter and dead wood has decreased dramatically since the 1800s. This needs to change.

By decreasing the rate of harvest and protecting older natural forests, carbon will continue to be absorbed and stored in the soil. Emissions from forest harvesting are not fully accounted for in greenhouse gas emission inventory reports. Instead, harvested wood products, which include paper products and wood used for energy, are considered as carbon dioxide removals. The concept of replacing natural forests with plantations and harvested wood products to create sinks, and therefore be positive for climate mitigation, is false, as it fails to account for the carbon lost from the destroyed natural forest and when wood is used for energy.

The urgency needs to be acknowledged considering that the net emissions of greenhouse gases, according to IPCC, need to decrease with about 50 % globally before the year 2030 in order to avoid a global mean temperature increase of 1,5 C above pre-industrial levels. If this is not met, there is a large risk that climate tipping points are reached where changes can become uncontrolled and practically irreversible.

Only bioenergy from sources with a short carbon dioxide payback time can be used for energy purposes, for examples residues from agriculture. In Sweden, it takes 50-100 years for felled trees to grow back from seedlings, and since about 80 percent of the carbon in biomass in Swedish logged trees are converted to bioenergy, paper and other short lived products, the current harvest rate will not contribute to limiting global warming to 1,5 C. The ongoing conversion of semi-natural and natural forests to even-aged monoculture plantations of single tree species, also make the forests more vulnerable to damage caused by climate change, such as insect attack, fungi attacks, wind and drought.

Even though Sweden has been a member of the EU since 1995, the country still rarely implements the EU Habitats Directive in the forest, and 14 of 15 forest biotopes in the Directive do not have favourable conservation status. The act of dismantling crucial nature conservation efforts most likely violates the EU nature legislation. At least 17-20 percent of all terrestrial areas should be protected in ecologically representative and well-connected areas. Existing national and international legislation needs to be applied immediately to prevent loss of biodiversity, regardless of what Director-General Sundqvist claims.

Julian Klein, Spokesperson, Protect the Forest Sweden

Isadora Wronski, Interim Programme Manager, Greenpeace Sweden

Simone Lovera, Executive Director, Global Forest Coalition, Paraguay/International

Almuth Ernsting, Biofuelwatch, United Kingdom/USA

Jana Ballenthien, Forest campaigner, ROBIN WOOD, Germany

Kelsey Perlman, Forest and Climate Campaigner, Fern, EU

Read the six NGOs’ previous opinion piece Sweden’s forest crimes in Euractiv on 26 February 2020.