Eeva Primmer and Mikael Hildén: Forest management and sustainability need European level collaboration

2021-07-20 Eeva Primmer and Mikael Hildén
The new Forest Strategy opens doors for leadership. © SYKE

The EU Forest Strategy has been the topic at Finnish family gatherings, summer events and in the social media during the peak of our holiday season. The debates about the Forest Strategy have portrayed a fierce disagreement over goals and means. The arguments have been about nature, climate, wood and pulp, and also the autonomy of forest owners.

Finland and Finnish stakeholders have been vocal in efforts to influence formulations in the new Forest Strategy, particularly in the last moments before it became public. Has Finland taken leadership, or has the lobbying resulted in fragmentation? Is Finland unique, as many Finnish forestry stakeholders have claimed? In considering Finland’s role, it is fruitful to consider the role of the EU forest strategy: how does it affect forest management, and how is it positioned in the forest policy landscape of the EU and member states?

An intense debate is welcome as the underlying questions are important, but the very polarized tones that we have heard have not invited a search for Finland’s strengths or opportunities to advance sustainability with forests and their management. Here we consider Finland’s uniqueness, analyse the role of the Forest Strategy and shed light on common claims about the strategy.

How unique is Finland as a forestry country?

Forests are tremendously important to Finns. This close relationship with forests, along with our large forest cover of close to three quarters, and the globally significant forest industry that relies on wood sourced from 600 000 privately owned non-industrial forest properties makes Finland a forestry country. Forest industry accounts for close to a fifth of the value of Finland’s exports. Yet, many other EU countries have some similar features. For example, the areal share of privately owned forests is higher in Sweden, France, Austria and Spain.

Finland has much forest but due to the country’s northern location and hence harsh conditions as well as the intensive use of forests, a Finnish forest hectare a has an average of 100 cubic meters of wood. In Germany this average volume is 320 cubic meters per hectare. Most EU countries harvest a smaller proportion of the annual growth from forests but for example, Sweden and Austria’s net harvest is even larger than Finland’s.

The share of pulp and paper industry of GDP is higher in Finland than in any other EU country. However, the market value of wood products is significant also in many other EU countries, and the GDP does not capture the whole picture. Indeed, the value added of the forest sector is higher than Finland in, for example, Germany, France and Italy. Finland’s forest-based employment is not unique, either. The Spanish forest sector employs double as many, and Italy and Germany have almost four times the number of forest sector employees.

In other words, forests are economically important for many EU member states, and Finland has shared interests with others.

What are forest strategies?

The EU Forest Strategy is not a new policy for advancing sustainability in the forests and forest sector. Already its predecessor considered many ecosystem services that forests produce. A comparison of EU environmentally related policies shows that the consideration of ecosystem services was thorough in the previous Forest Strategy.

Both the EU level strategies and the member states’ own strategies are made for a fixed time period, e.g. 10 years, to state the envisioned development. The strategies often include ambitious goals for the sustainability of forest ecosystems and new innovative ways of utilizing the services they produce but the means for implementing the goals are expressed in general terms. Compared to other forest strategies, the Finnish National Forest Strategy is more detailed and diverse. Some EU member state forest strategies nevertheless emphasize innovations and regulatory governance more than the Finnish strategy.

In addition to forest strategies, also other strategies seek to steer forest management. Bioeconomy strategies promote new innovations from forest-based raw materials and biodiversity strategies seek to protect nature and the diversity of forest ecosystems. The means vary from information to economic incentives and regulation.

Does the Forest Strategy increase forest protection?

The EU Forest Strategy does not include new conservation goals. Rather, it seeks to operationalise the conservation and restoration goals of the EU Biodiversity Strategy that were presented last year. According to the most recent Forest Europe report, the share of protected forest area was on the average higher in EU than in Finland. However, Finland has a particularly large share of such strict protection that excludes all forestry operations. Many countries have close-to-nature forestry and nature management cuttings also in their protected areas. These cuttings aim to maintain habitats that require active interventions. Finland continues to increase conservation and restoration according to the commitments of the Government Programme.

Does the Forest Strategy put emphasis on ecological sustainability?

The new Forest Strategy takes functioning and resilient forest ecosystems as its starting point. It seeks to reduce the pressure on forest ecosystems, which in the entire EU is driven by the loss of old growth features. The strategy also highlights the need for increasing the share of wood-based products with smaller climate impacts than those of fossil raw-material based products, over their entire life cycle.

The strategy puts emphasis on protection, carbon stock and sink as well as the positive impacts of wood-based products. The means to promote these include e.g., wood-based construction and long-lived wood products, protection of primary and old-growth forests, afforestation and tree planting, forest restoration as well as uneven-aged and continuous-cover forestry. Forest management regimes that avoid clear-cutting are not yet very common in Finland, or in other EU counties, so the strategy provides an impetus to explore such regimes more thoroughly. Overall, the strategy brings the already agreed biodiversity and climate goals closer to practice. These goals have an important status also in Finland.

Does the Forest Strategy promote social and economic sustainability?

The new strategy promotes lively and prosperous rural areas, diverse livelihoods and innovations in the forest-based value chain, stressing the importance of long-lived wood products. In Finland the forestry sector’s added value has declined with the reduction in demand for high value-added paper. It is in the interest of the forest sector to innovate and develop new high value-added products. A precondition is the investment in R&D, which is also on the EU agenda and supported by the Horizon Europe. Social and economic sustainability is promoted through diverse use of forests and wood and skills that strengthen competitiveness.

Does the Forest Strategy infringe on the competences of the member states?

The forest strategy highlights knowledge and information-based planning. These are areas in which Finland is a world leader. However, our recent discussion and lobbying shows that Finland wants to maintain all competence at the national level, without clearly specifying what this would entail. The strategy emphasizes new shared criteria and monitoring. The development of criteria would not start from scratch, rather they would build on the Forest Europe sustainable forest management criteria approved by the Pan-European Ministerial Conference. Finland has played a key role in the formulation of these criteria. Monitoring with shared criteria will point to the sustainability challenges in different areas and member states through increased information.

The strategy also seeks to develop nature management in managed forests, with guidelines on closer-to-nature forestry. Finland guides forest nature management as a part of best practice guidelines, which Finland can build on in the work developing the European level guidelines. Shared planning, monitoring and guidelines open new avenues for us to promote and share Finland's skills in forest inventories, assessment and governance. This can strengthen the forestry skills in the EU as a whole. EU-level forestry skills are needed in biodiversity and climate action, which are under EU’s competence, and the Pan-European processes support national policies, including the Finnish ones.

The forest Strategy cannot be claimed to take competence away from member states though these information instruments. Competences can change if new issues need to be tackled and then a discussion on how the shared competences should evolve is obviously important. The Fit for 55 climate package does not include proposals for legislative change that would shift the competences in the forest sector.

What can Finland do with the New Forest Strategy?

The EU Forest Strategy is a meaningful way to operationalize climate and biodiversity policy as well as the bioeconomy that relies on wood. Safeguarding the functionality and resilience of forest ecosystems, securing the diverse benefits from forests and promoting a sustainable forest-based economy require a long-term commitment and a shared vision in Finland and the EU. This is an opportunity for Finland to take leadership and start the implementation of the strategy in a collaborative fashion. The strategy offers means for promoting sustainability in all EU forests.

Why has Finland contributed to the uproar about the Forest Strategy?

Finland and Finnish stakeholders have been vocal in the debate over the strategy and particularly its implications for member state competence, forest protection and forest utilisation. This debate has resulted in polarization and gridlocks that tend to overlook other countries’ reasons for having strong interests in forestry. It is time for the forestry and environmental parties to engage in a deeper dialogue to look for solutions also in difficult issues. The first reactions to the strategy published last Friday give hope for the emergence of such dialogue. This would be a way for Finland to promote forest policy also at the EU level, rather than getting bogged down in internal conflicts.

Professor Eeva Primmer is SYKE’s Research Director. She is a forester, Doctor of Agriculture and Forestry and a member of Finland’s Forest Council. Eeva has recently led an analysis of strategies addressing EU forest ecosystem services in and EU H2020 innovation action funded InnoForESt.

Professor Mikael Hildén is the Director of SYKE’s Climate Change Programme and the Strategic Research Programme in carbon neutral and resource efficient Finland. Mikael has recently analysed forest policy change.


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