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STOCKHOLM-More than two thirds of Sweden are covered by trees, and that makes the country a battlefield between loggers and climate activists.
The spark is the EU’s new Forest strategy, published earlier this month. It aims to increase biodiversity, limit burning trees for energy, protect remaining old forests from felling and plant 3 billion trees as part of the bloc’s efforts to reduce emissions on the way to its Green Deal goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050.
Despite assurances from the EU Commission that it is not trying to dictate forest policy to the member states, the strategy has triggered a furious line in Sweden.
On the one hand, there are environmental activists and Swedish environmentalists who say that the industry must move away from intensive forest harvesting and leave trees to maximize the positive impact they can have on CO2 levels, flood risk and soil quality.
They see merits in the EU’s new strategy.
“This strategy looks like a good first step, and it is not something I often say about environmental issues that come out of the EU Commission,” says Pär Holmgren, MEP from the Green Party.
This concern is heightened by high temperatures and massive annual forest fires.
“June 2021 was the hottest June ever registered in my hometown Stockholm by a large margin. The second hottest June was 2020. The third year in 2019,” tweeted the Greta Thunberg climate campaign earlier this month.
But the peasant-friendly Swedish center party and a turnaround of Swedish forest companies say that industry has the balance, and the EU should strike.
Those like SCA Group, Europe’s largest private forest owners, want to continue logging in to deliver large quantities of building materials, fuels and paper products.
They say that their trees emit CO2 as they grow, and when they are felled, they can be used to replace more environmentally harmful products – for example, replacing plastic paper cups or wooden beams to replace steel in construction.
“For me, it is so obvious that the most important thing we can do for the climate is to continue to manage our forests in an active way,” says SCA’s head Ulf Larsson.
The forest debate shakes Sweden’s already fragile policy, as both the Greens and the Center Party support the current left-leaning government. Their spitting can make the government rebellious if they refuse to support the autumn budget.
The Social Democrats’ Prime Minister Stefan Löfven recently asked Minister of Trade and Industry Ibrahim Baylan to try to resolve the political differences between the Greens and the Center Party to help the government get to next year’s planned elections. Asked what he planned to prioritize, Baylan sa: “Forestry policy is the obvious.”
Forests and trees
This summer, the catastrophic effects of global warming have become increasingly visible in the form of floods in Germany and Belgium and record-breaking heat waves in the northwestern United States, as well as in the Nordic countries.
For Sweden, the debate about forests mixes the global with the intensely local. Small forest owners work together with Europe’s largest timber companies, and in some areas large patches of monoculture rub against old untouched tangled shoots.
A new everyday life was piles of tree trunks, stripped from their branches, along the road in the small central Swedish town of Lidköping. A sticker on a bundle showed that it was aspen that belonged to a nearby landowner, Thomas Arvidsson, who was to be picked up by a large local processor called Södra.
Since before the Vikings began to turn the trees that grew in the area into longboats, wood and wood products have been central to Swedish life.
Sweden is the world’s third largest exporter of pulp, paper and sawn timber, according to to the forest lobby group Svensk Skogsindustri. Timber employs 70,000 people and another 50,000 individual companies are active in the sector – making it a political heavyweight. In counties like Värmland, on the other side of Lake Vänern from Lidköping, you can drive for hours and barely see a gap in the trees that line the main road.
Generations of lumberjacks have trampled into the forest to bring down the mighty pines which then float, are dragged and driven to Sweden’s network of sawmills and pulp plants.
Critics of the forest industry say that powerful companies such as SCA Group, with the support of the Center Party, have for too long been able to dictate to Stockholm and Brussels what sustainable operations are.
The Green Party member Holmgren said that the tendency of forestry companies to plant “fields full of the same type of trees” is bad for biodiversity, while harvesting the wood too fast to burn as fuel or for use in discarded copper wastes the true ecological support society. come from forests.
“Currently, too much of the material is made from forest to paper or biofuels, which means that carbon will be released into the atmosphere as CO2 very quickly,” he said. “Then we do not have the climate benefit.”
SCA’s Larsson said that the company, despite its intensive harvesting methods, still plants more trees than it takes, and that it is clear that cutting down certain forest areas only reflects the role of fires in unmanaged forests.
For Holmgren, the EU strategy looks like the first real challenge in a long time for the idea that forests should be used, not saved. Referring to the recent floods in Germany and Belgium, he said allowing forests with associated wetlands to endure could help stop similar disasters from elsewhere.
He wants the European authorities to compile better data on the current situation in the continent’s forests in order to get a better idea of what is vulnerable and needs to be protected. The important thing is that the climate and the wider environment must be taken into account before business and not the other way around, he said.
“The most important thing for me and the Swedish Green Party – and this should be the most important thing for everyone – is to realize that without a sustainable ecology, we will not have a sustainable economy.”
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