Felling activities could leave Finland with a climate bill of hundreds of millions of euros
Calculation method determines whether Finland’s forests are seen as carbon absorbers or sources of emissions
By Elina Kervinen
Are the Finnish forests a source of carbon emissions or a carbon sink?
The question is anything but academic, and depending on how the endless stands of trees are seen, Finland could end up seriously out of pocket.
An answer to the question will be sought tomorrow, Wednesday, when the EU environmental ministers get together to formulate their view on the measures to be used to tackle the disappearance of forests in the forthcoming climate treaty.
This will be one of the fundamental issues under discussion at the December climate negotiations in Copenhagen, for the disappearance of forested land accounts for a fifth of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Also for Finland, a country that has a long history of acquiring wealth by making use of its woodland reserves, the question of the coming role of the forests within the EU is of a profoundly significant nature.
If an agreement is reached that is the most disadvantageous that is possible from Finland’s point of view, it may result in a supplementary bill of hundreds of millions of euros to the Finnish taxpayers.
So far, the prevailing assumption in Finland has been that its forests act as carbon absorbers, a kind of "carbon sink" (see link).
Although the total area of the forests in Finland has decreased in recent years, their density and for example the size of the trees have simultaneously increased, thanks to the carried out silviculture measures.
Hence the country’s forests absorb more and more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
However, when calculated in a different fashion, Finland’s forests can still be seen as a source of emissions - and because the trick with the climate treaty is that the emitter pays, Finland may end up paying a hefty price for a disadvantageous method of calculation.
This very method of calculation will be at the heart of tomorrow’s discussions between the EU ministers.
Reaching an agreement is still a distant dream, but then again one must realise that from the global point of view “the forest question is an extremely difficult negotiation subject. It is directly related to the conditions pertaining in each and every country”, says Aulikki Kauppila, adviser on international affairs to Finland's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
In the negotiations, forested EU states, such as Finland and Austria, favour a model in which the emissions caused by felling could be compensated for during the contract period by increasing the level of carbon absorption, for example by planting trees and by contributing to the overall growth of the forests through adding to the firmness of trees.
To put it simply, if a forest grows faster than it is being felled, an agreed portion of the difference could be regarded as an emission deduction.
This has been more or less the method of calculation already during the Kyoto Treaty era.
However, many other EU countries - such as Germany, where the forestry industry’s contribution to the national economy is rather small - favour a different type of calculation method.
The main difference compared with the model lobbied for by Finland is that in this version a comparison period is set for the carbon balance of the forests: the amount of carbon absorbed by the forests is first calculated during an agreed comparison year or period, and the carbon absorption over the contract period is then compared to this baseline.
If the carbon absorption has decreased, a country’s forests can be considered a source of emissions.
“The disadvantage with this method of calculation is that basically it is down to luck what kind of year is chosen as the comparison year”, Kauppila says.
From Finland’s point of view the result would be particularly bad if the 2005-2006 season was chosen as the base year, as has been suggested.
During that time-period the Finnish paper industry was riddled with strikes, and because more trees were felled in the following years the Finnish forests would appear as a source of emissions in the calculations.
According to Kauppila, it has been calculated within the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry that in this "horror scenario" the theoretical additional expense to the Finnish economy could be up to EUR 500 million in a four-year monitoring period.
This expense would result from Finland having to reduce its emissions through other means, for example in industry or traffic, or from having to purchase emissions quotas from elsewhere.
“The overall outlay, however, will remain significantly lower if a different comparison period is chosen”, Kauppila points out.
Growing forests and soil absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and therefore moderate the climate change.
When trees are felled and wood is burned, carbon dioxide is freed into the atmosphere, which in turn contributes to global warming.
How much carbon dioxide is absorbed depends on the age of the forest.
The rule of thumb is that a forest releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during its first 20 years of growth. After that it becomes a carbon absorber.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 17.10.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finnish greenhouse emissions within Kyoto protocol framework (5.10.2009)
Finnish cities stick to climate policy goals despite recession (2.3.2009)
Fewer Finns willing to pay for climate protection (8.10.2009)
Poll: Willingness of Finns to take action to curb climate change is declining (20.4.2009)
Finnish forests growing at record rate (18.6.2007)
Heroes to zeroes: Finland the eco-list darling joins the rank and vile (31.10.2006)
Vanhanen: Climate technology can help in downturn (17.10.2008)
United Nations Climate Change Conference, Copenhagen, 7.-18.12.2009
Carbon Sink (Wikipedia)
ELINA KERVINEN / Helsingin Sanomat