The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use is an important and welcome step forward, particularly given its recognition of the role that Indigenous communities play in protecting forests. While the implementation of the declaration will obviously be key, it is encouraging to see such consensus emerge.
Deforestation, yes, but what about logging?
However, it is important to recognize that the Declaration’s focus on deforestation, which implies permanent loss of forests when land is converted to some other use like agriculture or development, means it is nearly silent on the role of traditional logging in driving forest degradation. Logging can destroy forest biodiversity and carbon stocks so that the end result is nearly indistinguishable in its impacts from true deforestation. Particularly if natural forests are replaced with industrial tree plantations, biodiversity and carbon storage can both crash, resulting in a completely different ecosystem. Yet nonetheless, a mature natural forest, a clearcut, and a monoculture pine plantation can all be classified as “forests” under international reporting rules as long as there is no permanent change in land use.
The role of biomass energy in driving logging
In addition to being logged for sawtimber and short-lived products, forests are increasingly exploited to provide biomass fuel, particularly in the EU and supplying countries including the US, Canada, Brazil, and Russia. Because even “low quality” wood – roots, stumps, standing dead trees and forestry residues – can be chipped and burned as fuel, biomass harvesting tends to be extremely damaging to forest ecosystems, stripping out material and with it shelter and habitat, soil erosion protection, and nutrient and carbon inputs to soil.
The EU has significantly increased wood-burning for renewable energy in the last 20 years, and forest biomass harvesting is implicated in a serious loss of forest carbon density and cover.[i] This highlights an important gap between the Declaration’s aspirations to protect forests to help mitigate climate change,[ii] and its practical utility. Speaking at least for the EU, as long as forest harvesting continues at the same rate, the forest carbon sink is likely to continue to decline. Only by lessening harvesting pressure can forests store more carbon.
Nonetheless, despite much talk and planning around protecting and restoring forests in the EU, forest harvesting is likely to continue to increase. In addition to forest biomass harvesting for energy, which modeling conducted for the EU’s land sink target assumes will approximately double by 2030,[iii] forests will see increasing demand for the “bioeconomy” as EU policymakers continue to promote the idea that replacing concrete, steel, and other carbon-intensive materials with wood can help mitigate climate change. This push comes despite the findings of the European Commission’s own science team, the Joint Research Centre, who concluded that such “substitution” effects will not really yield climate benefits even by 2050, the year when the EU is supposed to have achieved “net zero” emissions.[iv]
With the Declaration’s silence on reducing harvesting, and several references to “sustainable” forestry, a notorious term providing cover for damaging forestry practices such as clearcutting in Sweden, we doubt that anyone in the EU’s forest industry is losing much sleep over the Declaration. Nor is the Declaration likely to be invoked as a reason to stop the clearcutting of native forests in the US, Canada, and forested EU countries like Estonia where the pellet industry has taken hold. The biggest pellet companies responsible for clearing forests, such as Graanul Invest, Enviva, and Drax/Pinnacle (in Canada) are always eager to announce that they “don’t cause deforestation,” as indeed they don’t, according to the formal definition employed in the Declaration.
Declaration financing offset by billions promoting forest harvesting
It’s ironic, too, that while reporting[v] puts the public financial commitment for the Declaration at €10.3 billion over four years, this is the same amount that EU member states allocated in subsidies to burning biomass in 2018 alone[vi] – subsidies that literally paid for liquidation of forest carbon into the atmosphere.
While the Declaration states that agricultural policies may be “redesigned and reconsidered” to benefit the environment, is again unfortunately silent on effecting such reforms elsewhere. If the same spirit of reform is applied more broadly, policymakers can start with the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, which counts burning forest wood as “zero carbon” energy and enables that fire-hose of funding to operate.
[i] Ceccherini, G., et al. (2020). “Abrupt increase in harvested forest area over Europe after 2015.” Nature 583(7814): 72-77.
[ii] Declaration recognizes forests have critical role “to help achieve a balance between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and removal by sinks”
[iii] European Commission (2018). In-depth analysis in support of the Commission Communication COM(2018) 773. A Clean Planet for all: A European long-term strategic vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy. Brussels.
[iv] Page 5 of Forest Strategy for 2030, at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:0d918e07-e610-11eb-a1a5-01aa75ed71a1.0001.02/DOC_1&format=PDF: “As indicated in recent studies23, in the short to medium term, i.e. until 2050, the potential additional benefits from harvested wood products and material substitution are unlikely to compensate for the reduction of the net forest sink associated with the increased harvesting.”
[vi] Page 20 of impact assessment for proposal for amending the RED, July 2021. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:0f87c682-e576-11eb-a1a5-01aa75ed71a1.0001.02/DOC_1&format=PDF