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Natural Climate Solutions
Nov 5 • 10 min read

Forestry and the quest for climate impacts

The discussion about climate change mitigation always includes two sides – the emissions and the removals. Despite continued emphasis from experts to put the avoidance and reduction of emissions first, of the two, removals continue to attract more public attention. In this blog post, I want to highlight this oversight. As a forester, I want to also point out that forests and forestry operations are not the cause nor the solution for climate change. But why would I say this? Forests are the lungs of the Earth. That was taught to us already in elementary school. However, the playing field of forestry is never simple. Neither has it been sleeping dormant waiting to be harnessed for climate actions. Sustainable forestry practices are and have been a source of renewable materials, energy and food throughout history. These practices are the reason that we still have forested land in many locations. But these practices and their tweaking for improved climate benefits are far from simple. As in most cases, everything works somewhere, but nothing works everywhere.

The past few years have been a wild race for foresters. For a field that has long been considered mostly conventional and traditional, characterised by a small circle of experts where everyone knows each other, the sudden flood of attention caused by the climate emergency has at times been overwhelming. All of a sudden, decades of research, common knowledge, and industry best practices ended up under a peering glass of completely new stakeholders and the general public. All in desperate search for solutions to mitigate climate change. For sure, this interest has at times been flattering, and for sure, it has also generated a lot of new business opportunities for forest related advisory services. But in the middle of all the fuzz, a common consensus of how climate impacts of forests should be managed keeps on eluding even the scientific community. Meanwhile, global emissions continue to break the records each year1 (excluding the exceptional and undesired economic year of 2020).

Beneficial forest management activities – the simple part

So, what are the bits we forestry-insiders keep on arguing about? Maybe it’s easier to start with the things we can agree on. First of all, there’s quite a well established consensus that forest as a land-use class is often highly preferred in terms of its ecological and social features. This is the basis for:

  1. The general consensus that global deforestation (i.e. loss of forest cover and conversion of land-use) should be halted and turned into net increase of forest land.  We can also witness this in the COP26 announcement where world leaders promised to end deforestation by 2030. Deforestation is bad, we can all agree on that . 
  2. The general consensus that, in most cases, afforestation (i.e. converting non-forest land into forest land) is a desirable activity. This is pretty much the reverse of the first point. As deforestation is bad, afforestation is good.

But, unfortunately, that’s about it.  The general consensus ends there. And even the second point is at times questionable, or at least conditional. The common ground rules are that afforestation should not compete with or affect food production. It should neither negatively affect  any ecosystem services like water table levels, soil erosion, biodiversity, etc. But, at times, even these common ground rules might be competing with potential positive effects on climate. For example, afforestation could result in long-term higher vegetative biomass, hence more carbon would be stored in the soil and less in the atmosphere. This might still not be acceptable, if other values are decreased as a result.

But things are never that simple, at least when it comes to tissue issues

The real debate starts when we move our focus to commercially managed forests, and how to manage them for the benefit of climate, nature and the society. Here we have forest management activities like fertilization, inclusion and timing of thinnings, species selection when replanting, timing of clear cutting, and changing from rotation forestry to continuous cover forestry. Obviously, stopping all harvests for forest protection would also be one option. But here, between these options, we are truly in a pickle. The impacts that these options have on ecology, climate, and society differ between their locations as well as in time. At the same time, our decisions might have scary long-term consequences determining forest characteristics and their services for future decades or even centuries. 

Our decisions might have scary long-term consequences determining forest characteristics and their services for future decades or even centuries.

Some activities might produce quick benefits in the short-term, but sacrifice bigger benefits to be had in the longer run. Example of thinnings – thinning certainly reduces the tree biomass in the short-term, but at the same time, it might enable and give space for formation of larger individual stems which are required for long-lasting wooden structural elements in the long term. Meanwhile, the biomass thinned from the forest is still used for something, for example as a raw material for toilet paper, and toilet paper as an end-use is not going to disappear. If we stop thinning, how will this demand be satisfied? This same basic logic applies to all activities that have an impact on the total quantity of harvested volume or its temporal availability. 

Forest protection is not simple mathematics

In the extreme, we have full protection, hence stopping all harvests. This usually has quick positive impacts on the carbon balance of forest land, and often also for biodiversity values. This works very well on a small scale and on individual plots whose role and significance in the local supply of roundwood balance is marginal if any. However, if we start to scale up this activity, obvious caveats will start to appear. Assuming we are aiming to claim some climatic or ecological benefits due to our protection efforts, how do we handle the potential leakage, if local roundwood consumption remains stable? How do we account for the reduced supply of renewable material? How do we manage against increasing susceptibility to natural hazards, such as fires, pests, and storm damages? While most of these are probably not that much of a threat for biodiversity – for the benefits of climate it’s crucial that the biomass stays there and continues to grow. These points are obviously relevant only if we justify our protection efforts with additional climate benefits. 

Full protection works very well on a small scale and on individual plots whose role and significance in the local supply of roundwood balance is marginal if any.

We should keep in mind that the business-as-usual of modern commercial forest management, for example, in the Nordics today, has largely maintained, and in many cases, improved forest conditions and the climate benefits we get from them. Sure, these models have not been taken into practice with climate benefits in mind, but, luckily for us, a sustainable and maximized supply of roundwood is very much aligned with also maximizing the climate benefits and the quantity of carbon stored in the forests. Sure, we have lost most of our pristine forests over the last few centuries, also in the Nordics. This is tragic, and a real loss. But, if we compare the Nordics to other places that have lost their entire forest cover during the same time or even earlier, the contrast is clearly different.

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it – Where the true problem lays

Due to the complexities described above, changing our forest management for climate benefits is an extremely complex issue. It gets even more complex when we start to convert our management activity changes into tradable carbon credits, and claim the real climate benefits behind them. It goes without saying that there’s hardly any basis for the generation of carbon credits with the activities that are already happening in the business-as-usual, regardless of how beneficial these activities are, or have been for climate over the past decades.

That being said – when we think about modern forestry, it all seems like we are making a problem out of something that largely works. In places where forest management planning, the best practices in the industry, and forest legislation and recommendations are backed up by decades, or centuries of research, it’s usually not the badly faulty system in need of repair. It is particularly so, if we turn our eyes to the considerably larger problems we are facing. In forestry, we are merely optimizing the margins of  rather a well functioning system in a world where most other things are completely broken. For all that it’s worth, most modern forestry operations are neither the problem nor the cause of climate change – but neither are they a solution by themselves. These operations and practices are some of the very few reasons why the current global situation is not quite as bad as it could be.

CO2 emissions by energy source, World 1990-2019. IEA2

The true additional impacts and climate benefits we need to capture do not exist in current forestry. First and foremost, we need to reduce and stop fossil emissions – and that’s where all of the carbon market mechanisms should mostly focus and dwell on. While we wait for fossil fuels to become illegal, these emissions should at least be increasingly, and down the line, extremely expensive. This would create a logical incentive to transform and phase out such solutions and technologies, combined with an additional incentive for carbon markets rewarding such changes.

The solutions needed are massive in today’s perspective – but nothing new for humankind

As stated above, the harsh truth is that our global socio-economic system at large is broken. It’s based on unsustainable and faulty mechanisms and models. The fossil frenzy has carried us to miraculous welfare and wellbeing over the past century, but this fuel is running out, and our house is full of its fumes. The whole system would need to be rebuilt. Tweaking the margins does not work, if the whole operating model is the problem. We need new foundations. In many aspects, it’s about bringing common sense back into fashion. All products and materials should have a higher value. All things should be made to last. Recycling and repairing should always be the economically best way to operate. Nearby farms should have the cheapest ingredients for your kitchen – not the ones on the other side of the planet. But first and foremost, the remaining forests should stay as forests, and continue to provide sustainable and renewable food, materials, and energy for future generations to come.

Tweaking the margins does not work, if the whole operating model is the problem. We need new foundations.

Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this text do not necessarily reflect the official opinions and views of the author’s employer. Even if he’s right.



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