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Sweden to EU: Hands off our forests

Sweden to EU: Hands off our forests

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Sweden is a vocal proponent of the EU’s green ambitions, except when it’s asked to chop fewer trees.

Sweden has historically pushed the Continent to be more ambitious on climate and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to make the bloc’s economy more sustainable. At home, Sweden pledged to become climate neutral by 2045 — five years earlier than the EU-wide goal — and during the negotiation of the European Climate Law, called for higher emissions cuts than the minus 55 percent by 2030 proposed by the European Commission.

Sweden’s climate ambitions are made possible thanks to a key natural advantage: 70 percent of the country is covered with forests. That makes it one of the bloc’s largest carbon sinks. But Swedish MEPs insist that their country’s national treasure shouldn’t be treated as a giant airbag to make up for other countries’ insufficient emissions cuts.

Balancing the economic and social benefits of forestry with environmental protection goals has been at the center of the European Green Deal discussions in Brussels, and has pitted Sweden — together with other heavily forested countries like Finland and Austria — against the rest of the bloc on the grounds that the European Commission shouldn’t interfere with national forest management policies.

During the six months of its presidency of the Council of the EU, Sweden will have to push forward key policy files impacting forestry, including a new regulation aimed at boosting nature restoration, a proposal for certifying carbon removals and an EU Forest Monitoring Framework — and be expected to tune down its critics. But green activists fear it won’t do so, while the Swedish forestry sector — which represents more than 10 percent of the country’s industry — is asking Stockholm to use the presidency to have their concerns heard in Brussels.

“Sweden can be progressive on climate policy just because we have a sustainable forestry sector, which aids our climate work while benefiting our economy enormously,” said Jessica Polfjärd, an MEP with the center-right European People’s Party and member of the Swedish Moderate Party — which is part of the country’s coalition government. “And I don’t think it’s proper that our forestry sector should be regulated by people with little or no understanding of this.”

Even Green MEP Pär Holmgren acknowledged that “it is important that we don’t see the forest in Sweden as the big solution for all of Europe,” and called on each country and industry to do its share on emissions reduction.

But Polfjärd said “the key responsibility” of Sweden during its presidency will be to “find a balance in the Council between the need for an ambitious climate agenda while addressing legitimate concerns over the energy crisis and economic uncertainty.”

Martin Pigeon, campaigner at the Brussels-based forest protection NGO Fern, warned that EU countries “will have to be very watchful as to whether [the Swedes] are complying with the rule to be representing the common interest of other member states and not just their own.”

That’s something Sweden has pledged to do. Jessika Roswall, Sweden’s EU affairs minister, said in an emailed statement that the Swedish presidency will “negotiate on behalf of the Council as a whole.”

But foresters see the presidency differently. Emma Berglund, forest director at the Swedish Forest Industries Federation, said she “hope[s] the Swedish presidency will take the opportunity to put a focus on the role of our business and industry in tackling climate change.”

A key task of the Swedes will be to finalize a series of files under the Fit for 55 climate legislative package. “We hope that they can manage to do this without jeopardizing the contribution from the forest-based industry to tackling climate change,” Berglund added.

Don’t mess with the forest(ers)

Beyond their contribution to the country’s economic wealth, forests are a central element of Swedish culture. But their management has been a hot-button issue in the country for years.

The Swedish Forest Agency recently showed that the state of the country’s forests is worsening — something that could reduce their capacity to absorb CO2, and that is putting the forestry industry on the spot.

“Products from mining and from the forest have been what built this country,” said Johanna Sandahl, president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, whose organization has been questioning the sustainability of forest management in the country. “The primary production method in Sweden is clear-cutting … and it’s resulted in a great shortage of natural forests” and in the depletion of ecosystems, she added.

The EU 2030 Forest Strategy states that countries should avoid clear-cutting “as much as possible” as well as monoculture plantations. Instead, it promotes “the mixing of species by tree or by group of trees, natural regeneration or diversified planting on a small scale.” Sweden strongly criticized that strategy, arguing that the Commission was overstepping its competences and that the EU plan would negatively impact the forestry sector.

Clear-cutting is said to have the dual cost of removing older trees and disturbing the soil, which store large quantities of CO2, and damaging an ecosystem upon which a wide array of species rely. While replanting clear-cut areas does ultimately go some way to repairing the damage, trees take decades to grow and are often organized in single-species plantations with limited potential to stimulate biodiversity.

Sweden’s big forestry industry players, including state-owned Sveaskog and privately owned SCA, have pushed back on the Commission’s forest strategy. They argued that the green transition will rely on large quantities of wood for a vast array of goods, like paper-based packaging to replace fossil fuel-based plastics, or timber in place of less climate friendly concrete.

“Unfortunately most of the political parties in Sweden and, of course, the industrialized part of forestry … are very, very conservative,” the Greens’ Holmgren said. “They do not want to change their routines and techniques; and at the same time, I do know that there are a lot of private, smaller forest owners that really would like to see more close-to-nature types of forestry,” he added.

Berglund acknowledged that “harvesting trees has an impact on the environment, and it makes a big difference to the landscape … and it’s good to have a debate around it.” But added that “ensuring that the forest is healthy and can maintain biodiversity” is a central goal of the sector. “We had a big shift about 30 years ago, when we got a new forest policy in Sweden, where environmental goals and production goals were put on equal par.”

Worried greens

Activists and green-minded politicians are also worried the new conservative government coalition that came to power in September — which is supported by the far-right Sweden Democrats — won’t push higher climate ambitions during its presidency.

“It is really tragic that Sweden is a country that has a history of being in the forefront when it comes to climate, environment, and now, during these very important six months, is having a right-wing government that definitely will not prioritize climate,” Holmgren said.

Sandahl is also pessimistic and fears environmental issues will slip down the agenda. “We have had quite progressive climate policies for quite some time, but unfortunately this new government has decided to pull back on a number of reforms that have been introduced over the last years,” she said, adding that “it looks like we won’t reach our own climate targets.”

Swedish climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, recently filed a class-action lawsuit against their government over what they allege is insufficient climate action.

Sandahl also expects budget cuts for environmental policies to be “very big.” “The environmental budget overall could be reduced by 60 percent until 2025.”

The country’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said last month that his government will only push high climate targets if they don’t “stifle innovation.” He added that he will also call “for the EU to take full account of the role that forests play [in fighting climate change] as a source of energy, as a base for sustainable products and as an economic engine.”

A signal of the government’s new priorities was Stockholm’s decision to spike the country’s standalone environment ministry as one of its first decisions. Kelsey Perlman, forest and climate campaigner at the NGO Fern, said that downgrading this ministry to put it under the tutelage of the conservative Energy and Economy Minister Ebba Busch, is “a clear statement” that economic interests are prioritized over the environment. This is “quite worrying,” she added.

Yet, Sandahl hopes Sweden will confine itself to its role of presiding over EU policy debates without pushing its own interests.

“I really hope that Sweden takes a leadership in their presidency … being a neutral broker and really doing its best to move things forward in a good way,” Sandahl said.

Charlie Duxbury contributed reporting from Stockholm.

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