Sweden is often seen as a frontrunner when it comes to sustainability. For example, it has the highest share of renewable energy in the EU and is known for its thorough recycling and waste separation. Sweden is sparsely populated and 70% of its land area is covered by forests. Over the last century, the volume of yearly timber harvests has doubled, but despite this remarkable productivity increase, the Swedish Forestry Model is fiercely debated across a range of actors. In this blogpost we aim to introduce and give some background to one of these ongoing debates.

Although Sweden’s forest land only sums up to about 1% of global forest area, the country is the third largest exporter globally of wood products. 6% of the global pulp exports, 8% of global paper exports and 11% of sawn timber exports worldwide come from Sweden (KSLA, 2015). The vast majority of Swedish forestland – 84% – (SLU & Sveriges oficiella statistik, 2017) is used for timber production, and much of it consists of even-aged monocultures of spruce or pine (KSLA, 2015).

To understand why the Swedish forest looks like this, we need to travel some decades back in time. In the late 1800s, large parts of Sweden’s forests were overexploited. Natural regeneration could no longer keep up with the impacts of forest grazing by cattle and the harvesting of wood for timber and charcoal. In the early 20th century, the Swedish state started to address this problem in order to secure a steady stream of raw materials to its economy. In 1903 Sweden’s first forestry act ordered that all felled trees must be replaced directly by planting new ones. Throughout the following decades, the government created an increasingly long list of forestry regulations and subsidies supporting the forest sector. This culminated in the 1950s with the introduction of a forestry model based on clear-cutting of relatively large areas, which increased cost effectiveness and allowed for further mechanization of the harvesting process (Lindahl et al., 2017).

In doing so, Sweden imported the model of rational forestry that was first developed in Germany. James Scott gives a fascinating account of this forestry model in his acclaimed book “Seeing like a state”:

“The achievement of German forestry science in standardizing techniques for calculating the sustainable yield of commercial timber and hence revenue was impressive enough. What is decisive for our purposes, however, was the next logical step in forest management. That step was to attempt to create, through careful seeding, planting, and cutting, a forest that was easier for state foresters to count, manipulate, measure, and assess. The fact is that forest science and geometry, backed by state power, had the capacity to transform the real, diverse, and chaotic old-growth forest into a new, more uniform forest that closely resembled the administrative grid of its techniques. To this end, the underbrush was cleared, the number of species was reduced (often to monoculture), and plantings were done simultaneously and in straight rows on large tracts.” (Scott, 1998, p. 11)

Scott’s account shows how the management of nature for maximizing timber output in the end converted complex forest ecosystems to mere providers of timber for industry and human use. The physical transformation of complex (even if partly degraded) ecosystems into timber plantations during the 20th century in turn encouraged viewing forests are mere timber producers. Complex forest ecosystems are hard to model, but the new timber plantations in fact fitted quite neatly into mathematical forest growth curves. In this way, the view of forests as timber plantations and the simplification of physical forests reinforced each other.

In 1993, a major policy shift occurred in Sweden. The detailed regulations regarding, for example, having to replace sparse and unproductive forests with young plantations, obligatory thinning of young forests, obligatory harvesting of older forests, and obligatory cleaning were relaxed. Instead, forest owners got to manage their forests in “freedom under responsibility”. Only some key regulations remained, such as those concerning mandatory regeneration, consideration for environmental values, and reporting of clear-felling operations (Lindahl et al., 2017). Furthermore, environmental protection was added to the Swedish Forestry Act as a second, and “equally important” policy goal next to timber production (Lindahl et al., 2017). However, the Swedish forests didn’t magically change their appearance just because of that. With their even-aged, biodiversity-poor monocultures of spruce and pine, forest owners were (and to some extent still are) locked into plantation forestry, particularly given the rotation periods of 60-120 years  that are common in central and northern Sweden (Simonsson, 2016).

The principle of freedom under responsibility and the dual goals of timber production and environmental protection are still central to Swedish forest policy today. However, environmental NGOs criticize that Sweden continues to be largely covered by plantations rather than mixed and biodiverse forests (Protect the Forest, 2016; Sahlin, 2011). Furthermore, there is little hope that the government’s environmental goals for 2020, such as “Sustainable Forests” or “Rich diversity of plant and animal life”, will be met anytime soon (Naturvårdsverket, 2019a).

Another dimension of this debate has to do with forest ownership in Sweden. As half of the Swedish forestland is owned by private individuals (SLU & Sveriges oficiella statistik, 2017), conservation measures that are enforced in a top-down way are often seen as an infringement to ownership rights. This is especially true when such conservation measures interfere with timber production and the income related to it.

This might seem like an example of the common clash between economic development and environmental protection. However, there is more to it. In fact, intensifying timber production is promoted not only for economic purposes, but increasingly also for sustainability reasons (Lindahl et al., 2017). Whereas some people think about sustainable forestry as extensive management that mimics natural processes as close as possible, the mainstream view in the Swedish forest sector is a different one. Sweden’s first National Forest Program, that was launched last year, formulates sustainable forestry as follows: “The forest – the green gold – shall contribute to jobs and sustainable growth in the entire country and to the development of a growing bio-economy” (Johansson, 2016, pp. 143–144).

Sustainable forest management thus risks to be interpreted mainly with a climate change mitigation goal and a shift towards a growing bio-economy in mind. After all, creating a bio-based economy in which fossil fuels, plastics, textiles, concrete and steel are replaced by forest products requires the production of a large amount of forest biomass. The initiative “Swedish Forest” (supported by a number of forest industries and forest owner organizations) goes all in to sell the forests’ endless possibilities to the general public through advertisements and campaigns:

“The forest is great to spend time in and is, in more ways than one, also great for the climate. As it grows it purifies the air (the trees bind and store the carbon dioxide) and once the tree is fully grown it can be manufactured into climate-friendly products and materials. As the forest is continuously growing, its renewable powers never run out as long as we care for it in the right way.” (http://www.svenskaskogen.nu/eng.html#start)

Ecological limits or adverse effects on biodiversity risk to be neglected in this framing.

Intensification of timber production is heavily promoted by some forestry actors and industries in order to step up climate change mitigation action, and the concept of bio-economy is portrayed as a perfect combination of sustainability and plantation forestry. However, the other side of the story, which is emphasized by many researchers, points shows that more diverse forests are able to sequester more carbon, deliver a broader range of ecosystem services, and are also better able to cope with the effects of climate change in the future (when compared to even-aged monocultures) (Gamfeldt et al., 2013; Keskitalo et al., 2016). Thus, over-simplified carbon sequestration arguments that do not consider the range of services that forests provide at relevant time scales, should not be used to further legitimize the industrial forestry that is commonplace in Swedish forests. However promising and convincing it might sound to have “more of everything” in Swedish forestry, continued attention is needed for handling trade-offs between production goals and important environmental and cultural values. Only through a careful balance, a truly sustainable Swedish forestry model can be reached.


Authors: Iris M. Hertog, Sara Brogaard & Torsten Krause