The most forested country in Europe sends a worrying signal for EU’s climate hopes

Finland’s land sector is now a net source of carbon pollution, according to new data from Natural Resources Institute Finland. 

Finland, the most densely forested country in Europe and a center of forest products manufacturing, is logging its forests so intensively that its land sector has converted from being a sink to a source of  greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (LUKE). The new data show that forests and other lands emitted 2.1 million tonnes more carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2021 than those lands removed from the atmosphere.

“This is bad news for the climate,” says Finnish MEP, ex-minister for environment in Finland Ville Niinistö (The Greens).  “All EU countries should do more to increase their carbon sinks. Restoration of the natural carbon sinks and reforming all land use to be sustainable is a precondition of addressing climate change and also going beyond carbon neutrality. It is also necessary to address loss of biodiversity. The negative trend in Finland is a signal that even such a forested country cannot count on automatic influx of carbon sinks if it does not change the way it intensively uses forest resources.” .”

Forests are mainly responsible for CO2 uptake by the land sector as a whole, since urban and agricultural lands tend to be sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The EU’s climate mitigation plans rely on land use to increase its carbon sinks and increase the sustainability of all land use. Forests have an important role to sequester CO2 to help the bloc meet its greenhouse gas net reduction targets, and EU legislation sets CO2 uptake targets for the land sector of each member state as a way to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050. Finland’s own target of carbon neutrality by 2035 was enacted into legislation on May 25, one day after the LUKE announcement that the land sector is now a net source of carbon emissions. 

While the data from LUKE show Finland’s forests are still a net sink for carbon, forests are taking up less carbon each year. In 2010, forests took about 50 million tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere, but by 2019, that number had decreased by more than half, to about 20 million tonnes, while the LUKE data show the forest carbon sink had fallen to around 6.7 million tonnes by 2021. The LUKE analysis concludes that a surge in forest logging and decreasing forest growth were responsible for the land sector tipping over from being a net sink to a net source of carbon emissions. 

“The forest industry keeps touting the ‘Nordic model’ of forestry, claiming it’s ‘sustainable,’” said Finnish MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen (EPP). “In fact, this is a red light warning that chopping down our last natural forests and replacing them with sterile plantations destroys ecosystems and floods ecosystem carbon into the atmosphere. We must urgently recognize that forests cannot meet our demands, and reverse these emission trends, before it’s too late.”

Finland’s dependence on burning wood for renewable energy is largely responsible for the decline in forest carbon. Government data show Finland burns around 40 million tonnes of wood for energy per year, far more than it transforms into products.  Manufacture of harvested wood products has remained fairly constant in recent years, but wood-burning for renewable energy has steeply increased, dwarfing energy input from wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies. LUKE notes that while Finland burns about a third more secondary wood (sawdust, other mill residues) for energy than primary wood (wood sourced directly from forests), it is the increase in use of primary wood for energy that is driving harvesting to an unprecedented level.   

Finland’s total greenhouse gas emissions excluding the land sector in 2021 were essentially the same as the previous year, but this reflects the treatment of energy from wood-burning as having zero CO2 emissions. In reality, burning wood emits more CO2 per unit energy generated than fossil fuels.  

“When it comes to our emissions, it’s like we’re running in place,” says Finnish MEP Silvia Modig (The Left). “Burning wood may be counted as zero emissions at the smokestack, but logging forests decreases the forest carbon sink, so we don’t actually reduce the net amount of CO2 we’re emitting. Of course, people will always burn some wood for fuel, but it makes no sense to be spending billions in renewable energy subsidies on logging and burning forests for fuel when we could instead be allocating those funds to truly clean renewable energy,” concludes Modig. 

The European Parliament will have a plenary session and vote on the Renewable Energy Directive on the 12th of September. In the vote, The Parliament will decide on the possible revision of the contents of the directive. The climate specialists, as well as the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, recommend removing forest biomass from the Renewable Energy Directive.

Further information

MEP Ville Niinistö (vihr/The Greens),

MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen (kok/EPP),

MEP Silvia Modig (vas/The Left),