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It is not the world that we are saving here – Climate change, Finnish bioeconomy and the world politics of carbon sinks


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World’s forests are gaining a new political role in the era of climate change. They are a crucial part in the global endeavour to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Along with such measures as cutting down rapidly the greenhouse gas emission caused by the fossil economy, forests are expected to function as global carbon sinks that suck carbon from the atmosphere. During the next few decades, the capacity of forests to work in this role on a global level needs to be carefully regulated, strengthened and sustained.

In this context, boreal forests draw special attention. Since they grow slower than, for example, their southern counterparts, storing back to the forest the amount of carbon dioxide released during tree cutting takes several decades or even more than a century. This re-frames the conditions for boreal forest use. If boreal forests are expected to play their part in the next decades’ ‘herculean task’ of global climate measures, their sinks need to grow, not diminish, and the commercial use of forests needs to shift to forms that store carbon for decades to come.

This new forest use frame, brought to public by climate scientists, caused an intense debate in Finland during the year 2017. Climate and forest researchers expressed their concern that Finland’s forest utilization plans would accelerate climate change. This scientific knowledge was faced with enormous criticism, expressed by the representatives of the forest industry and members of the centre-right government. Several discursive strategies were used to frame the Finnish forest use as sustainable, most important being the flexible concept of ‘bioeconomy’.

Simultaneously, the question had world political implications, when the European Union revised its position on the role of forests as part of its climate policy. The scientific stance on the essential role of forests as carbon sinks gained support among other EU countries. Thus, the Finnish government and representatives of the forest industry engaged in aggressive lobbying on the EU level. Finally, when the EU’s decisions on land use and forestry were presented, their economic impacts were celebrated as a victory by the Finnish government and industry, although doubts have been expressed on what the decisions mean for the future of Finnish forestry.

Based on the wide material collected from Finnish media, we will analyse how the scientific knowledge of forest’s role in climate policy was received and reframed in public discussion during the year 2017. We put critical focus on the concepts of bioeconomy and sustainability as a political discursive strategy to legitimize the extractivism of boreal forests.

Keywords: forests, climate change, bioeconomy, carbon sinks

Published in: Environment
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It is not the world that we are saving here – Climate change, Finnish bioeconomy and the world politics of carbon sinks

  1. 1. It is not the world that we are saving here – Climate change, Finnish bioeconomy and the world politics of carbon sinks Tero Toivanen & Paavo Järvensivu BIOS Research Unit World-Ecology Conference Helsinki, 17. 8. 2018
  2. 2. Background for the case: The world politics of (Finnish) carbon sinks • World’s forests are assumed to have a crucial role in global climate politics as carbon sinks (other methods of carbon dioxide removal are more or less theoretical) • Wood-based bioenergy and biofuels considered to be key alternatives in replacement of fossil fuels • The timespan for the implementation of effective climate policies is two to three decades (Paris Agreement) • Boreal forests (we have in Finland) grow slowly: according to scientific research, harvesting of wood decreases the carbon sink of forests, and using the wood to short-lived products, such as pulp, paper or bioenergy, release carbon into atmosphere à harvested forests will not mitigate climate change – at least not for the next decades • According to the Finnish government’s targets, the annual harvesting would increase from c. 60 Mm3 to 80 Mm3 à would decrease the forest sinks significantly (forest sinks now about half of the annual emissions from other sectors) • Since 2015, a debate between the Finnish government and the EU: European Commission’s view has been close to the scientific consensus while Finland has lobbied for an independent role to decide how its forests are used
  3. 3. Historical importance of the Finnish forest industry • Historically the forest industry has had a significant economic and political role in the Finnish society, ’The land of forest industry’ • From 19th century onwards, combination of political economic interests and scientific forest research has framed how and for what purposes forests have been used à after WWII, a mass-scale industrial forest economy with tree plantations • The efficiency and sustainability of the forest economy has frequently been questioned by studies on alternative ways of forest use and environmental organizations • From the 1990s, Finnish forest companies have gained a notable position globally • In the 21st century, the concept of bioeconomy has been used to ‘green’ the public discussion about the Finnish forest economy (although industrial production is still dominated by pulp and paper) • The renewable energy sector is heavily based on forest biomass: 80 percent of renewables comes from wood (EU, 60 percent)
  4. 4. Media debate: a battle on two fronts • First front, the EU: the contradiction between forests’ role in climate politics and in the Finnish government’s targets was first framed in the Finnish media as a battle of national interest and against the EC: ‘The special features of the Finnish economy and forest industry are issues that the European Comission does not recognize if Finns [politicians or lobbyist] don’t go [to Brussels] and tell them”, one storyline stated (YLE 15.11.2016) • Second front, scientific research: In March 2017, a public letter undersigned by 68 Finnish forest researchers caused ‘a storm’ although it stated the same two things that were previously presented in numerous research articles and reports: 1) Finland’s planned increase in the use of wood will not mitigate climate change for decades; 2) The current level of forest use and its increase endanger biodiversity • An intense, and still continuing, public debate followed, and the message of the letter (followed by several reports and other international scientific letters with the same message) was heavily criticized especially by different factions closely associated with the forest industry • The decision of the EU parliament in September 2017 (Finland can increase harvesting) was interpreted as a victory for Finland: ‘Its not the world we are saving here. But now we are preventing that no unreasonable decisions are made that would be bad for Finland’s economic development and forest industry’, the CEO of Forest Industry answered.
  5. 5. Media debate: which strategies of depoliticization were used? • A small and developed country: Finland is already filling its responsibilities in climate politics, ‘a small country can do only its fair share in global world’; Finnish forest economy and environmental regulation are the most developed in the world, ‘if we are not going to do this someone else will’. • Sustainable development: Scientific consensus about ecological limits might be right but a ”holistic perspective” (ecological, social and economic) is needed when the future of Finnish forests is estimated • All quiet on the home front: It would be better not to discuss about the scientific role of forests before the battle on the EU level has reached its conclusion, ‘we do not need a plan B [for Finnish forest use]’ • Mixing the public discussion: There exist several scientific opinions on the matter (while there is a consensus); what needs to be done is cut down the emission from fossil fuels (while both cuts and carbon sinks are needed); questioning or not accepting the few decades’ timespan (which in practice means accepting current insufficient commitments) • Stigmatizing: The public letter was called ‘a political pamphlet’ and separated from its scientific base and similar international scientific statements; researchers were called ‘address researchers’ or even ‘enemies of the fatherland’ and their expertise was questioned
  6. 6. Conclusion • Among the EU countries, Finland is often considered to be a ’gentle player’ that is obediently implementing Union level policies (e.g. Finland was the only country who during the euro crisis implemented austerity policies willingly, Blyth 2017) • In the context of global climate politics a small country, such as Finland, can gain a significant role: world’s attention can be opened uncritically towards wood harvesting and the use of wood-based biofuels • The case of Finland demonstrates how difficult it is for latest climate science to change an individual state’s actions which are embedded in historically constructed power relations • The scientists’ demand made publicly (do not increase the harvesting above current levels) was modest by any world political standards • The other approach could be a fast implementation of climate policies which would radically decrease the harvesting of forests globally • Ideas of radical transformation of economy or society were absent from the media discussion