Finland’s forestry myth undermines its radical climate ambition

Comment: The next EU presidency wants to drive the climate agenda, but its forestry industry is bad for carbon emissions, biodiversity and its indigenous Sámi people

Finland's climate strategy hinges on sustainable management of its forests (Photo: Flickr/Mikko Muinonen)


“Solving the climate crisis could be Europe’s next heroic act, one that will be admired for generations,” said Finnish prime minister Antti Rinne, on the day that Finland assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The first major event of Finland’s EU Presidency takes place in Helsinki on Tuesday, when politicians, business leaders and researchers from across the continent gather to discuss the future of the bioeconomy in the EU.

For Finland, the European Bioeconomy Scene 2019 Conference, is a chance to show other nations the way forward: how natural resources – in Finland’s case, the boreal forests that cover two-thirds of the country – can help other member states wean themselves away from fossil fuels, and supposedly into the promised land of a low carbon economy.

Proponents of Finland’s bioeconomy highlight the 315,000 people the industry employs, how it’s worth in excess of €60 billion to the Finnish economy, and how by 2025, these figures are expected to rise to 100,000 people and €100 billion respectively.

Yet the bioeconomy’s role in the low carbon society is built on foundations of sand.

Finland to be carbon neutral by 2035. One of the fastest targets ever set

Finland’s bioeconomy strategy – as the best available science shows – neither mitigates climate breakdown nor tackles the biodiversity crisis. It also fails to safeguard the rights of the country’s indigenous Sámi people. It does not offer a path towards an inclusive and just low-carbon society, but intensifies the very problems it claims to address.

Yet successive Finnish governments have promoted a bioeconomy which relies on relentlessly increasing harvests of the country’s forests, while ignoring the evidence of its effects.

The explanation, in part, is that they’re trapped in assumptions rooted deep in the country’s history.

Over the past 150 years, Finland’s economy and culture have been more closely tied to forests than any other European country, and creating a world-class forest industry has been central to the nation’s economic strategy since it declared independence in 1917.

The 2008 global financial crash, which coincided with the rapid descent of the country’s mobile giant Nokia (responsible for a quarter of Finnish growth between 1998 and 2007), revitalised forests’ role as a lifeline for Finland’s economy. This time the need for increasing timber harvests was justified with the emerging bioeconomy discourse – boosted by international climate policies encouraging countries to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

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Policymakers’ embrace of the bioeconomy, however, wasn’t about solving the climate crisis, but solving the crisis in Finland’s economy. It wasn’t about saving forests, but saving the Finnish welfare state. What’s more, it fitted a time-honoured Finnish narrative that what’s good for forest corporations, is good for the state and for the country as a whole.

Evidence shows that discourse on the bioeconomy has been used to legitimise re-industrialisation of forest policies in a similar fashion in other countries, although expanding the forest industry and mitigating climate change are, in their present form, deeply incompatible.

Over the past few years, Finnish policymakers have repeatedly been made aware of this.

For instance, in March 2017, I was one of the 68 Finnish climate, environmental and ecological scientists who wrote a public letter raising concerns over the climate and biodiversity impacts of Finland’s forest policy.

It highlighted how the idea – which underpins the bioeconomy – that wood-based fuel and wood-based products are always carbon neutral and therefore climate friendly, is essentially a myth: it relies on the belief that the combustion of wood is carbon-neutral, and ignores the decreases in forests’ carbon stocks and sink capacity caused by increased harvesting – with an impact similar to actual carbon emissions.

Finland’s strategy of vastly expanding its forest industry – that is, increasing timber harvest levels – would require a massive reduction in carbon emissions in other sectors to make up for the reduced carbon held in its forests.

The costs of these reductions would not be covered by the forest industry, but by the state. Finland’s bioeconomy strategy is, therefore, not just bad for the climate and biodiversity, but also for taxpayers.

Instead of continuing to legitimise the status quo, Finnish policymakers should critically reflect on the assumptions that their current strategy is based on.

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The idea that the country’s interests are always aligned with those of its forest industry, does not hold. Nor does Finland’s self-image that its forest sector is leading the world in addressing the biodiversity crisis – which forestry is actually driving – withstand scrutiny. Forestry remains the most important cause of biodiversity loss in Finland both in terms of species and their habitats. The notion that logging forests is good for the climate is similarly flawed.

Another misapprehension, is the widespread belief that Finland, as a western democracy, is good at respecting indigenous people’s rights. In fact, Finland’s intensive logging has heaped intolerable pressures on the Sámi people, by threatening a way of life that’s endured for centuries. The country still lacks proper consultation and impact assessment mechanisms to ensure the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people regarding how land is used in its traditional territories.

Finally, the economic case for the bioeconomy is countered by research showing that leaving more forests unlogged would, in fact, be more cost efficient for the national economy than reducing traffic or other emissions by an equivalent amount.

So what vision should those meeting in Helsinki this week aspire towards? And what principles should a progressive, sustainable and just bioeconomy be based on?

Yes, we can reforest on a massive scale – but it’s no substitute for slashing emissions

For a bioeconomy to be meaningful in an environmental context, rather than just as a means of re-industrialising forests, it has to prove that it actually helps mitigate climate change and addresses the biodiversity crisis. Anything else is a hoax.

The role of small countries is to lead by example.

With its most progressive ever government on the environment there is a huge a sense of urgency – as well as public support – for Finland to also be a global trailblazer for climate action.

To achieve this however, will mean initiating a bioeconomy built on scientifically grounded environmental goals; a bioeconomy built on justice and equality; and policy choices that make sense for the national economy – not only for corporate interests.

If it can do this, Finland could indeed be model for the world, and especially nations such as Brazil, Indonesia, Russia which have both large tracts of forests and substantial indigenous populations, which are blighted by inequality, injustice and forest destruction.

Kaisa Raitio is associate professor in environmental communication at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Her work focusses on the politics of natural resources, in particular on conflicts around mining, forestry and indigenous peoples’ rights in Sweden, Finland and Canada. She is the author or co-author of numerous, widely cited studies and research papers.

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