European forests as carbon sinks

Author: Raisa Mäkipää, Natural Resources Institute Finland

The European updated Bioeconomy Strategy aims to develop the bioeconomy in order to maximize its contribution towards the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the Paris Climate Agreement. The core of the strategy is the sustainable production of renewable biological resources and their conversion into vital products. The 2018 update proposes a three-tiered action plan to strengthen the bio-based sectors by unlocking investments and markets, to deploy local bioeconomies across the whole of Europe, and to understand the ecological constraints of the bioeconomy.

By 2030 the EU has, pursuant to the Paris Agreement, agreed to reduce its GHG emissions by 40% of the 1990 level. According to the country specific targets set by the EU Finland is committed to reduce its emissions by 39 per cent. In addition, the European counties have agreed to maintain the current level of the annual forest carbon sinks, 372 million Mg CO2 eq., which sequestrate approximately 7 per cent of the European GHG emissions. If the carbon sinks are reduced, Europe will have to find means to decrease the fossil emissions by more than 40 per cent. On the other hand, increased carbon sinks can to some degree compensate a part of the emission reduction needs.

The EU countries will prepare their proposals for a forest reference level of their carbon sinks by the end of 2018 and the proposals will be evaluated and approved by the EU Commission in 2019-2020. As a reference level for the carbon sinks are set, each country can design country specific policies to mitigate its climate change with cost efficient means. The European countries have cost efficient possibilities to enhance their carbon sinks by afforestation or by improved forest management practices. In Finland, forest growth and carbon sequestration can be enhanced e.g., by efficient regeneration after final harvests, by multi-species stands that are more productive and resilient than monocultures, and by climate smart forest management of peat soils. Strengthening the forest carbon sinks will also pave the way towards a carbon neutral economy, since biological carbon sequestration is known to be a feasible and cost efficient way to create negative emissions.

In 2017, Sweden committed to cutting its net carbon emissions to zero by 2045 – the law was passed with an overwhelming majority in the Swedish parliament. Sweden plans to cut its domestic emissions by at least 85 per cent, and offset the remaining emissions by forest carbon sinks or investing in corresponding projects abroad. The Finnish government has also set a target to reach carbon neutrality in 2045. If a forest carbon sink will be maintained at the current level (27 million Mg CO2 eq. in 2016), the GHG emissions need to be reduced by 54 per cent from the current level to reach carbon neutrality. As new investments to biorefineries will increase the wood biomass demand, domestic harvests are likely to increase, which will decrease the forest carbon sink, in turn increasing the required emission reductions in other sectors.

Raisa Mäkipää is research professor at Natural Resources Institute Finland.

The Natural Resources Institute Finland is a research and expert organisation that works to advance the bioeconomy and the sustainable use of natural resources. Natural Resources Institute Finland is a member of Koli Forum Association.