Forest, wood.
​The interaction between the forest and the climate is complex. The forest can both store carbon dioxide and emit greenhouse gases. What happens is depending on to what extent –and how – the forest is used for wood production. Photo Maria Grahn.

Anders Wijkman: "Too much silo mentality and too little caring for the whole”

​What is the role of forests in climate change mitigation and the ambitions to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement? Should we leave the forest unharvested to function as a carbon sink, or should we manage the forest for increased wood harvesting so that we can replace fossil-based products with bio-based products such as construction wood, biofuels and new packaging materials? Or may forests meet several objectives at the same time? A new report “Forests and the climate” aims at exploring questions like these and, in addition, try to explain why researchers with access to the very same information and data do arrive at different answers to such questions.​
Anders Wijkman– Given the climate challenge and the goals of the Paris Agreement, we focused on the role of forest and land use in relation to the climate, highlighting in particular issues where opinions differ widely within the research community. It was exciting. We wanted to explore if we could bridge the differences of opinion and, at the same time, identify knowledge gaps. I think we made progress, and my impression was that everyone was humbled by the experience, says Anders Wijkman.

Together with Chalmers researchers Göran Berndes and Filip Johnsson, among others, he is the author of the report "Forests and the climate - Manage for maximum wood production or leave the forest as a carbon sink?".

The report is based on the discussions among almost one hundred international experts during the conference "Forests and the climate" in Stockholm, March, 2018.

– We hope to present the contents of the report for members of both Parliament and the Government within shortly. Just like there are different views among researchers, we know that there are widely differing views in the political world concerning forests and forest management in relation to the climate challenge. We believe that this report can help decision makers make the right choices.

Anders Wijkman has been engaged in sustainability issues for decades – both as a legislator, as head of scientific institutions as well as civil society-based organizations. He has been a member both of the Swedish and European Parliaments and head of the Swedish Red Cross as well as the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation. In the 1990´s he had a stint as assistant secretary general of the UN and policy director of UNDP in New York. 

He has participated in most of the international climate conferences, COP:s, since 1995. While in the European Parliament Anders Wijkman was one of the driving forces behind the development of a climate action plan within the EU and, as well, in the efforts to limit the HIV and AIDS epidemic in Africa.
– Yes, I am very much concerned about both social and ecological sustainability. I worked for the Red Cross for 10 years and I am still engaged in humanitarian issues, even though it does not occupy my time to the same extent today, says Anders Wijkman. 

Anders Wijkman has been recruited to several international top positions, as chair of the think-tank the Club of Rome, which is known worldwide for its seminal report in 1972: "The limits to growth". He is also elected Chairman of the Board of Climate-KIC, the largest public-private partnership on innovation for low-carbon solutions within the EU, where Chalmers is a core partner.

In the Paris Agreement 2015, ambitious targets were set to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. To achieve this, rapid and large reductions in fossil fuel emissions are required, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Forests, no doubt, have an important role to meet the Paris goals.
Anders Wijkman believes that there is a huge difference in reducing territorial emissions by 20-25 per cent (which we have done in the last 20 years through fuel shifts and efficiency improvements) compared to brining emissions down to net-zero.  

–  To reach close to zero, all major sectors in society need to undergo transformation. My task at the conference in March 2018 was to demonstrate the great change that is needed, and, in particular, to show that this is not only a matter of changing the energy system. We also need to change the way our land is used – both forestry and agriculture  and the production of basic materials such as steel, cement, plastics, textiles etc. all of which generate a lot of greenhouse gases in the production process. 

Anders Wijkman believes there are basically two options: either we produce the existing materials in other ways than today, or we have to replace them with other materials. Biomass can be used for both purposes; - to replace existing materials with bio-based materials, such as using wood for construction instead of cement, and – to make the production of existing materials more climate-friendly, for example by using biomass instead of coal as process fuel.

One of the key issues at the conference was “To what extent can one use raw materials from the forests as substitutes for fossil-based materials” and it was Anders Wijkman's task to paint that picture.

– The toughest challenge is to get people to understand that there is a huge difference between cutting away a few percentages here and there – what I would call incremental improvements - and transformation. Actually, we haven't really started reducing emissions in earnest yet. We travel more than before, not least with aviation, we build houses and infrastructure in the same way as we have always done, we consume more food – and use flights to import it – and we use more and more plastics, electronics and clothing. In none of these areas has there been a truly radical approach to change things in order to drastically reduce emissions and the climate impact.

Anders Wijkman sees only one area where Sweden is in the process of making a radical change. 
– In the steel industry there is now a development towards using hydrogen instead of coal and coke in the steel production process. By doing so carbon emissions will be eliminated. But otherwise, few really transformative changes are in the pipeline – except for the energy system where wind and solar power now rapidly increase their share of the electricity supply.

The UN Climate Panel was formed in 1988. Four years after that, the Rio meeting was held where the Climate Convention was agreed upon. Nations agreed to work together to avoid dangerous climate change. But since then, global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by almost 60 percent. It is a scandal. 

Have the researchers failed to explain this problem to people?
– One of the problems is that society is organized in silos. There are very few people tasked to look at and address the whole picture. Everyone is focusing on their own sectors.
– Another problem is that we have not received much help from the economists who continue to define cost-effectiveness as they have always done, i.e., very narrowly. Moreover, the principle of discounting means that there is a tendency to delay action because costs are perceived as lower then. I have the feeling that economists are primarily interested in the relationship between consumers and producers and nature is regarded more or less as a kind of constant. This becomes very problematic, says Anders Wijkman.
He believes that it is difficult to get an effective climate policy to be implemented under the current global leadership. The election of Trump is a huge problem.

– When the world's largest economy sends the signal that addressing climate change is no longer important - on the contrary ignores it - then responsibility falls heavily on everyone else. Not the least, it becomes difficult to motivate developing countries, which are at least fifty years behind in development, to do the right things. Especially as many of them have their own coal reserves.

The interaction between the forest and the climate is complex. The forest can both store carbon dioxide and emit greenhouse gases. What happens is depending on to what extent – and how – the forest is used for wood production. The report tries to explain why researchers come to widely different conclusions with regard to forest harvesting. It shows how conclusions that seem to be in conflict with each other in fact respond to different issues and different time scales - which for an outsider can be difficult to perceive.

– For example, one crucial issue is about what time perspective that is being applied. If the objective is to keep the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases as low as possible in the next fifteen-twenty years, then it may in some places be the most effective to let the forest remain untouched as a carbon store, says Anders Wijkman.
But the perspective will be different if we look 50 years ahead and take into account the need to transform different sectors in society, i e  to organize society in new ways and to develop new technologies and systems that can replace the old fossil-based systems. From such a perspective, it would be preferable from a climate perspective to manage the forest for wood production so that we can replace fossil-based raw materials, cement, steel, and a range of other products. 

In the longer-term perspective, the option to store carbon in the forest has limits because forest growth – and hence the uptake of carbon– decreases as the forests grow older. Old forests are close to equilibrium, that is the carbon emissions are about the same as the uptake. So the carbon storage option – to let the trees stand – has its clear limits. This is an important difference compared to the option of managing the forest for wood harvesting - not more than the annual growth though. When new trees are planted after harvest the forest is continuously renewed and it will be possible to maintain or even increase the amount of carbon that is stored in the forest. At the same time forest products are used for substitution in society. When such substitution concerns long-lived products the forest sink is extended into society. Carbon is then kept out of the atmosphere for long periods of time compared to when the forest is used for short-lived products, like paper and biofuels.

–The big challenge, says Anders Wijkman, is to strike the right balance between harvesting, planting new, and storing carbon in forests and forest products.

– Substitution is important and how to calculate the climate benefits of different types of substitution. It is relatively easy to compare a house of steel and concrete with a wooden house. Here you can clearly see that the wooden house has great advantages from a climate point of view. By planting new trees, you repeat the cycle and can later build more wooden houses, that is store more carbon outside the atmosphere. The picture is more mixed when we look at biofuels and for example green chemistry. The current carbon accounting methods do not consider all factors that influence how the production and use of forest products affect the climate. Here we need more reaserch. This was one of several important conclusions during the conference.

In addition to the ambition to present the report to the government and parliament, Anders Wijkman has as goal that parts of the report will be subject to further study at the Swedish Research Council for sustainable development (Formas) where he is the chair of the advisory committee for climate research. The report has identified clear knowledge gaps and it would be natural for Formas, among other things, to consider how these can be addressed.

How do you proceed after the report?
–  I would say that carbon accounting is very important, that is monitoring carbon stocks and flows. We do not have sufficient knowledge and capabilities here. This applies to both forestry and agriculture. With better knowledge about the carbon sinks and stores - in the forest and in society - it will be easier to decide on future strategies for the bio-economy and how to manage forests for enhanced climate benefits. 

By: Ann-Christine Nordin, photo: Ewa Rudling

The report "Forest and the Climate - Manage for maximum wood production or leave the forest as a carbon sink?" was written by Göran Berndes, Mattias Goldmann, Filip Johnsson, Anders Lindroth, Anders Wijkman, Bob Abt, Johan Bergh, Annette Cowie, Tuomo Kalliokoski , Werner Kurz, Sebastiaan Luyssaert, and Gert-Jan Nabuurs.

The report is based on the discussions between the international experts that participated in the conference "Forest and the Climate - Manage for maximum wood production or leave the forest as a carbon sink?", Which was held on 12-13 March, 2018, in Stockholm. Organizers were The Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA), The Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA) he Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, (KVA).

Page manager Published: Tue 26 Feb 2019.