JRC presents holistic view of the forest-based sector’s climate contribution

The EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) has published a brief titled: “Brief on the role of the forest-based bioeconomy in mitigating climate change through carbon storage and material substitution”. Here it’s reviewed by Dr Peter Holmgren, senior advisor at FutureVistas Inc.

What is your overall impression of the JRC Brief?

– The brief makes a good job in conceptualizing how the forest-based sector as a whole interacts with the global climate. With this it is understood that the forest shouldn’t be analysed separately from the wood-based value chain and the mutual dependencies between these two sub-systems should be highlighted. This is particularly true when aiming to leverage the full potential of the forest and forest-based sector for effective and large-scale climate change mitigation solutions.

This may be well-known for policy makers in European countries with a large forest-based sector. Why is it important that JRC presents this holistic perspective?

– EU’s policy focus on forest with respect to climate change mitigation is largely to maintain a net sink and subsequent storage of carbon in the forest. This is problematized by JRC. Prevailing carbon accounting standards and policies, such as LULUCF and IPCC models, tend to consider the forest in isolation. The considerable net sink in Europe is then expected to offset fossil emissions in other sectors to meet the net-zero goal. Indeed, the EU Green Deal expects to increase this net sink so as to relieve pressure for reducing fossil emissions in other sectors. JRC highlights that increasing the carbon storage even more in European forests may not be straightforward as risks for damages by fire, insects and wind also increase. Therefore, we should also look to opportunities with enhanced wood-based products both to store carbon and to displace fossil emissions from other materials and energy.

Do you find any room for improvements of the JRC insights of the forest-based bioeconomy?

–  For a brief on bioeconomy, the role of economics and markets could have been made more explicit. One major incentive for managing European forests is to meet the demand for wood and generate income. This way forests are managed for the long term and deliver a stable and increasing carbon stock alongside with harvesting of wood. Similarly, the mitigation potential from investments in the value chain - innovation, efficiency gains and new uses of products, is not elaborated. Here we can expect considerable gains that go hand-in-hand with financial returns.

– Just as important, the discussion on substitution effects is limited to solid wood products. However, both wood fibre products and wood-based bioenergy should be included as they are integrated parts of the value-chain and also contribute at scale to reducing our climate impact. Moreover, the displacement effect is only estimated for a fraction of the total volume of products as a kind of marginal effect. This is unfortunate as it leads to severe underestimation of the sector’s overall displacement of emissions from fossils and cement production.