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Sweden on the verge of war among forestry and activists

More than two-thirds of Sweden is covered by trees, and that’s turning the country into a battleground between loggers and climate activists. The spark is the EU’s new Forest Strategy. It aims to boost biodiversity, limit burning trees for energy, protect remaining old growth forests from logging and plant 3 billion trees as part of the bloc’s effort to slash emissions on the path to its Green Deal goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050. Source: Politico

Despite assurances from the European Commission that it isn’t trying to dictate forest policy to member countries, the strategy has set off a furious row in Sweden.

On one side are environmentalists and Swedish Green Party lawmakers who say the industry must move away from intensive harvesting of forests and let trees stand to maximize the positive impact they can have on CO2 levels, flood risk and soil quality.

They see merit in the EU’s new strategy.

“This strategy looks like a good first step, and that isn’t something I often say about environmental stuff coming out of the European Commission,” said Pär Holmgren, a Green Party European parliamentarian.

That concern is heightened by soaring temperatures and massive annual forest fires.

But the farmer-friendly Swedish Centre Party and a swathe of Swedish forestry companies say the industry has the balance right, and the EU should butt out.

The likes of SCA Group, Europe’s largest private forest owner, want to continue logging to supply vast quantities of building materials, fuels, and paper products.

They say their trees sequester CO2 while they are growing, and when felled, they can be used to replace more environmentally damaging products — for example switching paper cups for plastic ones or timber beams to replace steel in construction.

“For me, it is so obvious that the most important thing that we can do for the climate is to continue to manage our forests in an active way,” said SCA Chief Executive Ulf Larsson.

The forest debate is shaking Sweden’s already fragile politics, as both the Greens and the Centre Party back the current left-leaning government. Their spat could upend the government if they refuse to back the fall budget.

Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven recently asked Business Minister Ibrahim Baylan to try and resolve the policy differences between the Greens and the Centre Party to help the government make it to next year’s scheduled election.

Asked what he planned to prioritize, Baylan said: “Forestry policy is the obvious one.”

This summer, the catastrophic effects of global warming have become increasingly visible in the form of flash floods in Germany and Belgium and record-smashing heatwaves in the American northwest, as well as across Nordic countries.

For Sweden, the debate over forests mixes the global with the intensely local. Small forest owners operate alongside Europe’s biggest timber companies, and in some areas, vast patches of monoculture rub up against ancient untouched tangled bosks.

On a recent weekday, piles of tree trunks, stripped of their branches, lay alongside the road in the small central Swedish town of Lidköping. A sticker on one stack showed it was aspen belonging to a nearby landowner, Thomas Arvidsson, to be picked up by a big local processor called Södra.

Sweden is the world’s third-largest exporter of pulp, paper and sawn timber, according to forestry lobby group Swedish Forest Industries. Timber employs 70,000 people and a further 50,000 single-person businesses are active in the sector, making it a political heavyweight. In counties like Värmland, on the other side of Lake Vänern from Lidköping, you can drive for hours and barely see a gap in the trees lining the main highway.

Critics of the forestry industry say powerful companies like SCA Group, backed by the Centre Party, have for too long been able to dictate to Stockholm and Brussels what constitutes sustainable operations.

Green Party MEP Holmgren said that forestry companies’ tendency to plant “fields full of the same type of tree” is bad for biodiversity, while harvesting the wood too quickly to burn as fuel or for use in throwaway cups wastes the true ecological support society could get from forests.

“At the moment, too much of the material from forests is made into paper or biofuels which then means that the carbon will be released into the atmosphere as CO2 very fast,” he said. “Then we don’t have the climate benefit.”

SCA’s Larsson said that, despite its intensive harvesting methods, the company still plants more trees than it takes, and its clear-cutting of some areas of woodland merely echoes the role of fires in unmanaged forests.

For Holmgren, the EU strategy looks like the first real challenge in a long time to the idea that forests should be used, not saved. Pointing to the recent flooding in Germany and Belgium, he said that allowing forests, with their associated wetlands, to endure could help stop similar disasters from happening in other places.

He wants European authorities to compile better data on the current state of the Continent’s forests to get a better idea of what is vulnerable and needs protecting. What is key is that the climate and the wider environment must be considered before business and not the other way around, he said.

“The most important thing for me and the Swedish Green Party — and this should be the most important thing for everyone — is to realize that without a sustainable ecology, we won’t have a sustainable economy either.”