How can a forest-based bioeconomy support biodiversity and climate neutrality?

Authors: Michael den Herder (EFI), Pekka Leskinen (EFI), Hans Verkerk (EFI)

Forests and forestry play a key role in climate change mitigation. Reducing deforestation and forest degradation lowers greenhouse gas emissions and forest management and afforestation can maintain or enhance forest carbon stocks and sinks. In addition, wood products can store carbon over long time periods and wood products can substitute for emissions-intensive materials.

For example, when using wood instead of concrete and steel as a construction material, emission reductions can be achieved by less energy-intensive construction processes and materials. It has been estimated that by using 1 tonne of wood for structural construction instead of concrete and steel, it is possible to avoid 2.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions on average.

Replacing fossil fuels with wood-based bioenergy also offers possibilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are also concerns on the use of bioenergy. Bioenergy is commonly said to be “carbon neutral”, but this depends on the context how it is produced. Biomass energy is carbon neutral if growing the biomass removes as much CO2 as is emitted into the atmosphere from its combustion. Biomass energy is carbon neutral only if the net life-cycle emissions are zero. Therefore, the full supply chain must be considered, and all emissions associated with production, processing, transport and use of bioenergy need to be included. There are also concerns that bioenergy demand could lead to increased harvest of forests for bioenergy only. However, mature forests are generally not harvested for bioenergy alone. Instead, biomass is usually a by-product of sawlog and pulpwood production, and mostly harvest residues (tops, branches, small-diameter trees) and wood processing residues (sawdust, bark, black liquor) are used for bioenergy. Using residues as biomass for energy production offers a good possibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions when replacing fossil fuels and enhances the climate change mitigation value of forests managed for wood production.

Forestry is the first stage of most forest-based bioeconomy value chains, providing the biomass used by society in many different ways to generate products and energy. Because it modifies forest structure and composition, biomass production has a profound impact on forest ecosystems and the habitats of forest-dwelling species. This could have a considerable negative impact on biodiversity, in particular if this leads to intensified biomass removals (see Question 6). However, a forest-based bioeconomy also provides many opportunities for supporting biodiversity since it puts emphasis on mitigating climate change, preventing deforestation and reforesting abandoned farmland and degraded areas. Sustainable forest management integrating biodiversity conservation measures, ecological forest management approaches, and agroecological approaches integrating more trees in farmland all have beneficial effects for biodiversity.

Using forests for wood-based as well as non-wood-based forest products establishes an economic interest for forest owners and other stakeholders to engage in sustainable forest management, to maintain and develop their natural resources and favourable ecological status in the long run. Different market mechanisms under development for financially supporting various ecosystem services can serve the same purpose. Economic interest can therefore create the motivation and financial possibilities for acting against forest disturbances, and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Climate Smart Forestry could help to combine objectives related to biodiversity and climate. It involves a mix of measures which aim to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, build resilience in existing forests, and increase forest productivity. It seeks synergies with other policy objectives such as enhancement of biodiversity, provision of other ecosystem services from forests, and the establishment of a strong bioeconomy. Climate Smart Forestry can help implementing regionally tailored actions under the Paris Agreement by (a) increasing the total forest area and avoiding deforestation, (b) connecting mitigation with adaption measures to enhance the resilience of global forest resources, and (c) using wood for products that store carbon and substitute emissionintensive fossil and non-renewable products and materials.