For the sake of the climate: Cut down the old beech forest

13. december 2022 kl. 15:39
For the sake of the climate: Cut down the old beech forest
Illustration: PatMcD/Wikimedia Commons.
We must make a sharper distinction between climate forests and wild nature in order to achieve the new EU target for carbon storage in nature, a senior researcher in the field of forests and biomass says.
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To mitigate climate change, it is not enough to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

The CO2 must also be removed from the atmosphere.

This can be done with the help of expensive and futuristic CCS technology, but the simplest solution is already at hand and has been for billions of years: photosynthesis.

While world leaders recently argued about climate funds and fossil fuels at the UN’s latest climate change conference, COP27, the European Commission and the European Parliament reached a provisional agreement on a new target on 10 November.

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From 2030, plants and soil on EU territory must absorb a total of 310 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year. This de facto raises the EU’s total CO2 reduction target for 2030 from 55 to 57 percent.

The new EU target applies to the so-called LULUCF sector, which covers land use, land-use change and forestry, and includes both methane emissions from agricultural land and carbon storage in forests.

But even if the new target does not seem overly ambitious, it is challenged by the fact that the carbon stocks in European forests, which make up the vast majority of the total account, have grown more slowly over the last ten years than previously.

European carbon stocks are growing more slowly

In 2020, carbon stocks in forests grew by a quarter less than they did in 2013.

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This has caused Europe’s total carbon stocks to go from growing by 324 million tonnes of CO2e in 2013 to only growing by 226 million tonnes in 2020.

When I was still studying, it was said that forests were the world’s multitool
-- Thomas Nord-Larsen, senior researcher in the field of forests and biomass, University of Copenhagen
The problem is, among other things, that the trees age, explains Thomas Nord-Larsen, senior researcher in the field of forests and biomass at the University of Copenhagen.

“The trees in the European forests are generally getting older and older, and when the trees grow more slowly, they capture less CO2. There are early signs of sink saturation in many places in Europe, meaning that the forests are simply becoming saturated with CO2,” he says.

Climate change contributes to less forest area

In addition to the aging forests, climate change may be one of the reasons why the carbon stocks more slowly.

There is less rain in the summer, forest fires are becoming more frequent, and more insect attacks are ravaging thousands of hectares of land in southern Europe.

Since 2013, the CO2 stocks in the European forests have been growing at an increasingly slower rate, despite the fact that the forest area grew by approx. 1.5 percent or approx. 2 million hectares in the same period. Source: UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC Illustration: Ingeniøren.

These incidents contribute both to forests growing more slowly and to CO2 being released when the trees die.

Regardless of the explanation, this negative development must be reversed with sanctions.

For the first time, the new EU agreement includes the possibility of countries being punished for not achieving their respective targets. Denmark and the rest of the EU must therefore make countless decisions, which must be successful, before 2030.

Some tools are available in the EU forest strategy, which was adopted by the European Commission in the summer of 2021.

Among other things, it is about promoting sustainable forestry and protecting old forests, but also about planting three billion new trees.

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During COP27, environmental organizations protested to protect European forests, proclaiming that the weakened carbon storage is due to deforestation, which has doubled since the turn of the millennium. But that is not the case, Thomas Nord-Larsen explains.

Allowing the trees to grow old is good for biodiversity, and they will continue to absorb and store CO2. But according to him, when talking about the CO2 account, part of the solution is actually just the opposite: to cut down even more trees than we do today.

Cut down an old tree, plant a new one

When new trees mature, they will not only absorb more CO2, but also be more resistant to climate change and insect attacks than the old trees they replace, Thomas Nord-Larsen explains.

He is not saying that there should not be any dedicated areas of untouched forest—but that we have to recognize that biodiversity and climate action do not necessarily go hand in hand.

“When I was still studying, it was said that forests were the world’s multitool. They could be used to capture CO2, supply energy, build houses, and accommodate biological diversity.”

Today, it is forbidden to cut down trees in national parks. If the forests in Europe are to store even more CO2, according to Thomas Nord-Larsen, it is especially the managed forests that must be optimised:

“In Denmark, for example, we have a very large stock of old beech trees for historical reasons. We could easily start felling some of them—and then plant new trees, of course.”

Out with plastic, in with wood

Moreover, if the felled wood does not end up in cogeneration plants, but is used in furniture or houses, the carbon remains stored for many years to come, while a new tree grows up and captures additional CO2 in place of the old one.

Wood products are included in the UN’s LULUCF definition and are therefore part of the carbon storage, which must not be forgotten, Thomas Nord-Larsen says.

“Everything I look at here in my office are products that come from fossil sources such as oil, coal, and gas. If our materials aren’t going to come from that, what on earth are they going to come from? Yes, there’s only one answer to that, and it is photosynthesis.”

When EU countries such as Denmark design a strategy for carbon storage, an increased production of wood products will be able to contribute to the accounts.

In 2030, Denmark’s forests, fields, etc. must emit no more than 5.3 million tonnes of CO2e, and we are thus one of the few countries that, for the time being, can continue to emit rather than capture. According to European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, the new 2030 target helps open the door to a higher climate target in the future.

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