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Published

12 September 2016

Ceasefire and sacked experts after forest controversies

Is forestry good or bad for the climate? Scientific debate on this question has been raging for some time. The scholarly dispute subsided only after Future Forests held an international conference on the subject. Then, following one of the programme’s seminars in Almedalen, things changed: a controversial statement issued there led to a government investigator being dismissed.

An article published in the journal Science last winter claimed that European forestry drives climate change. The authors’ proposition contradicts previous assumptions. As a result, a number of established forest scientists around the world were outraged. On a newly started email forum, some 70 of them argued with emphasis that the conclusions of the article were mistaken.

‘Unfortunately, the debate rapidly became polarised and in no way helped to move the issue forward,’ says Tomas Lundmark, Professor of Forest Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), who works in Future Forests.

To bring some order to the discussion, he proposed that the programme invite the parties involved to a conference, so that they could meet face to face there. No sooner said than done: a few days before Midsummer, the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA) in Stockholm filled up to the brim with researchers wanting to argue their case.

Many are well-known names in forest circles. These include Pekka Kauppi and Gert-Jan Nabuurs, who were among those who drew up an IPCC report expressing the view that active forestry is an effective way of combating climate change. Naturally, Kim Naudts and Sebastiaan Luyssaert, co-authors of the article in Science, were on the spot to explain and defend their opposing conclusions.

Over one intensive day, the issue of how forestry affects the global temperature rise was elucidted from many angles. Two topics covered in depth were how much forest there was in 18th-century Europe and how different types of forest reflect incoming sunlight to a varying degree.

‘Thanks to us meeting, and not just being confined to reading one another’s scientific reports, greater understanding for our divergent standpoints was created. I also think we agreed that what’s important to figure out is whether, and if so how, forests can benefit the climate even more than they already do.’

Short or long term

Another question dealt with was whether the potential climate benefit of forests should be assessed on a short- or long-term basis.

For the short term, the conclusion is that forests currently under management should be untouched from now on, this being the most effective way of rapidly binding carbon dioxide. But the problem is that forests already, within half a decade, have lost their capacity to store more carbon, which will mean that, over time, the climate effect will be the opposite.

The second, more long-term option — advocated by Lundmark himself — is to maintain active forest management in the areas where it is already under way.

‘This would bring an almost equal climate benefit in the short term as well. The difference is that the positive climate impact from a managed forest never decreases.’

In his opinion, the type of conference that was held by Future Forests and KSLA jointly is a good way of tackling scientific controversies.

‘That is, provided the organiser is sensible and lets everyone speak and have views on the programme and a chance to influence the arrangements. As long as this is done, different groups of researchers can sort out their misunderstandings and reach greater understanding. And that, in the long run, help to make it possible for the scientific work to take big strides forward. I’m also convinced that, during the year, we’re going to be able to see a range of positive effects from this conference, not least in the form of new collaborations among researchers who’ve now had the opportunity to meet for the first time.’

Turbulence after Almedalen

Face-to-face meetings do not always, however, end in consensus. When Future Forests joined in holding several seminars in Almedalen, the result was partly the opposite. During one of the programme items Charlotta Riberdahl, Senior Judge of Appeal at the Göta Court of Appeal, was questioned. She had been assigned by the Government to investigate how to improve the environmental aspects of the Swedish Forestry Act.

In her reasoning on the future ownership of Swedish forests, she chose to be deliberately provocative. At the end of a long discourse based on biodiversity and environmental benefits, she questioned whether private interests should really be allowed to own such an important natural resource as forest land.

The consequence of what she herself viewed as a philosophical argument was dramatic. A few days after the seminar, following extensive criticism from forest owners, she was summoned to see the Minister of Agriculture and relieved of her investigative assignment.

Although this particular programme item caused turbulence, to say the least, Future Forests’ Almedalen seminar was highly successful, thinks the programme’s deputy director Camilla Sandström.

‘Despite the stiff competition that goes on there, we had to put up the “Full” sign outside all our seminars. It was equally pleasing to see that there’s now greater understanding among all those with an interest in forests that we can, and should, replace oil and coal by greener options. So methods are needed for efficient cultivation systems with high growth, while negative environmental effects are avoided as far as possible.’

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