SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: January 14, 2021
SNIP: [I]n 2015, the Estonian government allowed what is known as clear-cutting in some parts of the Haanja nature reserve. The practice involves stripping entire areas of mature forest and removing whole tree trunks.
This relaxation of the logging rules came as international demand for Estonian wood soared – not just for furniture or construction, but because of an unlikely culprit: Europe’s renewable energy policies.
Forests cover 2m hectares or more than half of Estonia. Around 380,000 hectares (939,000 acres) of that, including the Haanja nature reserve, fall under the EU’s Natura 2000 network, which is designed to protect Europe’s forests and offer a haven to rare and threatened species. Haanja is home to 29 protected species, including the black stork, the lesser-spotted eagle and the corncrake.
Natura-protected zones are managed under the legally binding provisions of the 1979 EU birds directive and the 1992 habitats directive. But logging is governed by domestic laws, and Estonia permits it as long as it does not damage bogs and other special habitats, or fall within bird mating seasons.
Campaigners say that by allowing intensive clear-cutting in Natura 2000 sites, Estonia is in breach of the habitats directive and undermining the EU’s climate goals.
Siim Kuresoo of the non-profit Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF) doesn’t just blame the Estonian government. He says there is a direct connection between the subsidised growth in the biomass industry encouraged by EU renewable energy policies and the acceleration of unsustainable Baltic tree-felling.
“There is clear evidence that the intensification of logging is at least partly driven by higher demand for biomass for heat and power,” says a report co-authored by Kuresoo for the ELF and the Latvian Ornithological Society. “Given that over half of Estonia’s and Latvia’s wood pellet exports in 2019 went to Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK, ‘green energy’ use in those three countries contributes directly to increased logging in the two Baltic states.”
The Council of Estonian Environmental NGOs (EKO), of which the ELF is a member, has made a complaint to the European commission alleging “systematic” breaches by Estonia of its forest conservation obligations.
To investigate the subsidised European pellet trade and its impact on Baltic forests, we uploaded boundary files for Estonia’s Natura 2000 zones to Global Forest Watch, an online platform for monitoring forests, and found that per-hectare tree cover loss (the removal of the tree canopy rather than outright deforestation) in these areas accelerated after 2015. That was when the government adjusted park conservation rules to allow clear-cutting of up to one hectare at a time in some nature reserves.
Across Estonia, between 2001 and 2019, Natura 2000 areas lost more than 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of forest cover, an area more than twice the size of Manhattan. The last five years account for 80% of that loss. Further alterations to rules in other Estonian national parks are planned.
This acceleration appears to be taking a toll on bird species like the black grouse, woodlark and others. Woodland birds are declining at a rate of 50,000 breeding pairs a year, according to national records.
A switch to burning wood in the form of pellets appears to offer a simple and in theory carbon-neutral alternative to coal-fired power stations because trees take up carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. As long as the burned trees are replaced with new plantings, there is no net addition to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere.
However, that process of carbon take-up can take many decades. And in the furnace, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than burning gas, oil, or even coal. By accelerating carbon dioxide emissions in the short term, burning wood for electricity could be fatal for states’ ability to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global heating to well below 2C by 2050.
Demand for woody biomass or energy from wood as an alternative to coal in power stations took off from 2009, when the first EU renewable energy directive obliged member states to source 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 and classified biomass energy as carbon-neutral.
A flaw in the legislation meant that woody biomass was fully categorised as renewable, even if it came not just from wood residues or waste, but from whole trees. This meant that companies could directly harvest forests for pellets – rather than making pellets from the by-products of timber cut for other uses – in the name of sustainable forest management.
As the EU moved in 2018 to double the use of renewable energy by 2030, scientists warned the European Parliament that this loophole in the sustainability criteria of the revised EU legislation would accelerate the climate crisis and devastate mature forests. But against the competing interests of the multibillion euro biomass lobby, it went unamended.
Almost all European countries have recorded an increase in logging for energy. Nearly a quarter of the trees harvested in the EU in 2019 were for energy, up from 17% in 2000.
Biomass, of which wood from forests is the main source, now makes up almost 60% of the EU’s renewable energy supply, more than solar and wind combined, and a vast cross-border industry has emerged to meet this demand.
Taxpayer subsidies are driving much of the growth in this trade. Between 2008 and 2018, subsidies for biomass, of which wood is the main source, among 27 European nations increased by 143%.
“Biomass only exists at the scale that it does because of subsidies,” says Duncan Brack, associate fellow at the London-based thinktank Chatham House. “We’re effectively paying to increase carbon emissions in the atmosphere, which is an absurd use of public money.”
On paper, Estonia’s forest stock seems to be stable and even slightly increasing, according to Estonia’s 2020 Forest Resources Assessment (FRA). On the ground, we found felled areas replanted with small spruces, which count towards forest area, even though the young trees will take decades to absorb the same amount of carbon as the old felled trees. These “temporarily unstocked or recently regenerated” forests have increased more than 20% since 2010, FRA data says, with serious consequences for the capacity of Estonian land to store carbon. As a result, the Estonian land-use sector, which includes forestry, is expected to switch from being a carbon sink to an emitter of carbon by 2030, according to Estonia’s National Energy and Climate report – the same year by which, under the EU’s updated Renewable Energy Directive, Europe must have increased its energy from renewable sources to 32%.
Experts hold that generally, the more diverse the forest, the greater the variety of animals and plants it can host. Žiga Malek, assistant professor in land use and ecosystem dynamicsat Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, says: “The vegetation that was there before protected the soil from being eroded.” Clear-cutting is allowed in Natura 2000 areas as long as it does not conflict with local conservation rules, Malek adds. “In this case it would mean minimum disturbance,” he says. “Which this is not.” Replanted forests can provide climate benefits, he adds, but they cannot fully replace the lost forest ecosystem.
Altering the forest type can also affect the amount of carbon stored in the ground. Mature and closer-to-natural forests sequester more carbon in the long run, due to a healthier ground biomass, Malek says. “Even if the clear-cut area is planted with one fast-growing species, it will not be as effective in terms of carbon sink as the more nature-like forest would in the long term.”