The effects of climate change on Swedish forestry are already becoming visible. However, there is a lack of official governmental policies on adaptation in the forestry sector. In this blogpost, we try to explain the reason and potential consequences of this lack of governmental policies.

Many Swedish foresters, farmers and firefighters will remember the summer of 2018 for its extreme heat, its unusually long and severe drought, and the fires ravaging large forest areas in mid-Sweden. Sweden received help from all across Europe in order to get the severe forest fires under control. In 2019, Sweden’s spruce monocultures have been widely struck by bark beetle attacks, another consequence of the increasing vulnerability of Swedish forests under a changing climate. These events highlight the need to discuss and plan for adaptation of Sweden’s forests to climate change.

Climate change is expected to both benefit and also negatively impact Swedish forestry. Higher temperatures and longer growing seasons are portrayed as positive because they support tree growth, allowing for shorter rotation cycles and thus benefiting the Swedish forestry sector. But scientists warn that climate change will increase the risk of fire, lead to more tree pests and diseases, and increase the probability of more severe storms that can cause wind throw and storm damage. Furthermore, decreased soil frost and more humid winters will cause problems for logging operations because they make timber transportation more difficult, and increase soil erosion and soil damage in sensitive boreal soil ecosystems (Keskitalo et al., 2016).

The current forest management in Sweden is based on even-aged monocultures, which further amplifies these aforementioned risks. For example, even-aged plantations are more prone to windfall and more susceptible to large-scale insect damage than mixed forests (Keskitalo et al., 2016). Taking into account the long time scales on which forestry industries in Sweden operate, it is important to ensure that a shift in tree species selection and composition is initiated well in time. After all, the tree seedlings that are planted today won’t be ready to be harvested until 2090, or even later (Andersson & Keskitalo, 2018).

However, climate change adaptation issues are not at the forefront in the Swedish forest sector. Although Swedish scientists have been pushing for the introduction of adaptation into forest policy since the late 1990s, the reaction of the national authorities has been limited to spreading information to private forest owners about different adaptation options (Ulmanen et al., 2015). The forest industry takes a “wait and see” response, thus postponing transformational adaptation measures until their costs are outweighed by the direct climate change losses (Ulmanen et al., 2015; Andersson & Keskitalo, 2018).

In Swedish forestry legislation, adaptation to climate change has so far received little or no attention. In the Swedish Forestry Act of 1993, environmental goals are mostly about biodiversity. In the updated version of 2007, climate change has become more important, but forests are framed mostly as a tool for climate change mitigation, as carbon pools and sinks. In the strategy for Sweden’s National Forest Program (launched in 2018), the phrase “climate change adaptation” only appears once, whereas climate change mitigation has a central place in the first focus area.

The only adaptation measures that are considered are incremental ones that fit well within the current ways of doing forestry in Sweden. For example, the introduction of non-native fast-growing tree species (for example North American lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) plantations which currently cover approximately 600 000 ha in Sweden) is discussed as a way to capitalize on the expected benefits of climate change. The forest industry furthermore shows interest in technological innovations, for instance in machinery that allows harvesting in wetter and muddy conditions. However, this merely represents a technological adaptation to the changing harvesting conditions, not a transformational adaptation of tree species composition and forest management practices. Thus, climate change adaptation measures that imply a shift away from the current intensive forestry management practices are not sufficiently considered, if at all (Keskitalo et al., 2016).

In the Swedish forestry debates, adaptation and mitigation have often been posed against each other. In their analysis on adaptation in Swedish forestry, Ulmanen et al. (2015) found that the importance of adaptation has mostly been put forward by actors who are concerned with biodiversity, whereas those concerned with timber production tend to emphasize the forests’ role in climate change mitigation. The recent campaign “Swedish forest – where the future grows” is a telling example. The campaign was created and financed by a coalition of different forest industry actors and has been visible on television and in public spaces in Sweden during the summer of 2019. Its main message is that forests and forestry are the solution to many societal problems through binding carbon and growing biomass that can be used to produce fossil-free fuels, plastics, textile, steel, cosmetics, and batteries. In one of the advertisement posters that has been visible at Swedish bus stops, it reads: “Forests contribute to a sustainable climate”. In one of the tv ads, the main message is that “Every year, at least 380 million trees are planted in Sweden. We plant two new trees for every one felled. Sometimes even three!”. In the campaign, sustainability has thus been reduced to climate change mitigation objectives. Carbon uptake and biomass production are the two main ingredients for green growth and a bioeconomy running on “renewable superpower”. Intensive forestry is the solution to all sustainability problems – it’s as easy as that!

This is of course an oversimplification, and at the same time a great example of the power of framing. Framing refers to the way in which problems and solutions are described, for example the language used and the causal relations implicitly assumed. Central to the framing of the Swedish forest-campaign is the assumed synergy between environmental protection and economic growth. Timber production is framed as a “win-win” solution to both economic and environmental challenges (Andersson & Keskitalo, 2018). The idea that caring for nature does not take sacrifices, but can actually be good for the economy as well, is typical for the stream of thought of ecological modernization. Such a synergy has been identified in, for example, measures to increase energy efficiency. Energy-saving technologies can in fact be good for the environment and for your personal budget at the same time. And of course, this is a great argument to promote environmentally friendly behavior. But the equation doesn’t hold for ecosystem management in the same way. As common sense suggests, intensifying timber production (more monocultures, bigger clear-cuts, etc.) is bad for many threatened species and brings along a higher vulnerability to climate change. When it comes to reducing carbon in the atmosphere, some voices even argue that in the short term, decreasing timber harvesting is the best means to do so (https://www.dn.se/debatt/klimatnyttan-av-minskad-skogsavverkning-ar-enorm/). So, simply assuming that we can intensify timber production, protect biodiversity and adapt to climate change simultaneously avoids the political decisions that need to be made.

Forestry has been very important to the economic development of Sweden. Because of this, the sector is notoriously difficult to challenge, and the appeal of proposals that equate economic growth through forestry with environmental protection is understandable. Now, forestry has become the focus for achieving climate change mitigation, and the link between economic growth and environmental benefits becomes all the more appealing. However, the dominant framing of intensive forestry as a solution to both economic and environmental problems, too often disregards criticism and more sustainable and long-term beneficially alternatives.


 

Andersson, E., Keskitalo, E.C.H., 2018. Adaptation to climate change? Why business-as-usual remains the logical choice in Swedish forestry. Global Environmental Change 48: 76-85.

Keskitalo, E.C.H., Bergh, J., Felton, A., Björkman, C., Berlin, M., 2016. Adaptation to Climate Change in Swedish Forestry. Forests 7:28. DOI 10.3390/f7020028

Ulmanen, J., Gerger Sartling, Å., Walgren, O., 2015. Climate Adaptation in Swedish Forestry: Exploring the Debate and Policy Process, 1990–2012. Forests 6:708–733. DOI 10.3390/f6030708

 

By:

Project assistant Iris Maria Hertog

LUCSUS (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Science)

MSc. Tyko Berglund Ager

LUCSUS (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Science)

Dr. Torsten Krause

LUCSUS (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Science)