Climate: fossil substitution counts for half of forest benefit

Managing forests can optimise their contribution to climate action, notably by providing bio-based alternatives to fossil products and fuels, according to a recent study.

European forests and forest-based products remove or avoid a net 800 million tonnes of CO2 per year - a full fifth of EU emissions - but only about half of that is due to their function as "carbon sinks", or the sequestration of carbon in growing trees. Most of the other half comes from their substitution of fossil-based products and fuels, according to a recent study commissioned by the Confederation of European Paper Industries (Cepi) and other forest sector organisations.

The bottom line is clear: in their worry over declining forest sinks, EU policymakers cannot afford to neglect this other half of the equation if they want to meet the new 55 % greenhouse gas emission reduction goal for 2030 and deliver a climate neutral Europe by 2050.

"55 % means double the effort over the next ten years versus what we decided [just] two years ago," said Artur Runge-Metzger, a director at Direcorate-General for Climate Action at the European Commission, at an event in Brussels on 30 September where the study was presented.

"One aim now is to better reflect the contribution of the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector [to climate action]," he added.

Use forests

The forestry sector believes it can contribute to the EU's climate goals in three main ways: one, by sequestration of CO2 in growing trees; two, by storage of carbon in forests and harvested wood products; and three, by substitution of fossil-based products and fuels by bio-based products and bioenergy.

"Substitution is the elimination of demand for fossil fuels," explained Peter Holmgren, former Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the study's author. "[We have] calculated how many tonnes of fossil carbon remain underground for each tonne of carbon in forest-based products."

What Cepi's study reveals is that managing forests can optimise their contribution to climate action, notably by providing bio-based alternatives to fossil products and fuels.

"[In addition] if we want to contribute as a sink [...] we need to earn money to manage our assets and substitution is a source of income," explained Piotr Borkowski, Executive Director of the European State Forest Association (Eustafor).

Take away from Peter Holmgren's report "Climate effects of the forest-based sector in the European Union".

There is enough wood available for substitution, said Holmgren: Europe's forest stock grew by 40 % between 1990 and 2015, according to official statistics.
"We are far from harvesting total growth. The question is what are we going to do with all that wood?"

Substitution's challenge is that its effect "is by and large invisible in climate accounting," said Holmgren.

To take a concrete (no pun intended) example, when concrete is replaced by wood in building, the forest sector does not accrue the emissions saved by that substitution. Runge-Metzger responded that the substitution effect is captured in emission inventories, but not assigned to individual industries.

The Commission is focused on forests as sinks, the official explained, because they are essential to meet global climate goals yet the sink function of European forests has been in decline since 2013.

Good management a must

MEP Jytte Guteland (S&D, SW), Rapporteur for the new EU Climate Law subject to a plenary vote this week, told the event: "For us, sustainable forest management has huge potential for climate [and] we have good potential for substitution." She added, echoing Borkowski: "Well-managed forest will increase the sink function."

Sustainable forest management could let the EU reap the benefits of substitution while enhancing forests' sink function. Moreover it introduces the opportunity for green growth and economic resilience that the Green Deal strives for.

The forest sector wants an "efficient, fair and resilient climate policy" summed up Cepi's Director General Jori Ringman. "Policy is not made with an algorithm, it's a choice." The forest industry has a part to play in making that an informed choice.

Note: Cepi's study was first unveiled in a webinar on 19 June 2020. The full study is available here. It uses a peer-reviewed model and covers the EU-27, UK, NO and CH. Contrary to what many think, European forests are geographically widespread. Finland and Sweden make up less than a third (29 %) of Europe's forested area and account for a fifth of its forest output. Other regions, such as Central Europe, including Germany, are equally important.