Today, the Riigikogu deliberated the matter of significant national importance “Forest under conditions of changing climate”, initiated by the Environment Committee. Erki Savisaar, Chairman of the Environment Committee, Taivo Denks, Head of Forest Department of the Environment Agency, Rein Drenkhan, Associate Professor of Forest Pathology at the Estonian University of Life Science, and Aveliina Helm, Senior Research Fellow in Botany at the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science and Technology, University of Tartu.
Savisaar noted that forestry and the forest had an important role in mitigating climate change, but the forest also needed to adapt to climate change. “We need to agree on what importance the forest will have both in the economy and in meeting climate targets,” Savisaar said. He explained that the international community was of the opinion that sustainable management of forests helped preserve and increase carbon stocks in organic matter and soil, including store carbon in wood products, and bring about a substitution effect. It is possible to replace more carbon-intensive and non-renewable resources with wood in consumption. That is, when we are setting goals for forestry in the mitigation of climate changes, we cannot focus only on either the maximisation of carbon storage – at the extreme, this would amount to zero cutting – or the maximum carbon capture in a randomly selected year.
Savisaar brought the following example. If we wish to maximise carbon capture by 2050, forest stands mature for cutting should be cut right now, and the productivity of forests should be increased through certain economic techniques, including drainage and fertilisation. “Going to the extreme with both of these strategies will bring about adverse effects on the environment as well as other areas,” Savisaar noted. He emphasised that, in order to cope with climate change, we needed stability and a long-term vision on the basis of which activities could be planned, coordinated and implemented in shorter and longer term perspectives, taking into account the current situation of our forest.
Denks discussed the problems relating to forest in terms of today, tomorrow and the future. He explained that more than a half of the Estonian land area was covered by forest. The ownership of forest land in Estonia is more or less equally divided between the state and the private sector: 51.4 per cent is in the possession of the state, and private owners possess a little less than a half. Our main tree species are pine, birch and spruce. Forest land area totals 2.33 million hectares; a half of it is predominantly coniferous woodland and the other half is predominantly broadleaved woodland.
“In the opinion of the Environment Agency, first, a good thing is that we have plenty of forest. More than half of Estonia’s territory is covered by forest. There are forests of various ages – all kinds of forest, not just young forests. We have placed large shares of forest under strict protection in terms of percentage, compared to other countries. To my mind, we have guaranteed the diverse use of forest fairly well,” Denks said. In his opinion, communication has been deficient in addressing the issues relating to forest. Because of that, conflicts between various stakeholders are to a great extent caused by emotions.
“As far as I know, no better reasoned reliable national statistics on forest has been made than the statistics made by statistical forest inventory,” Denks said. He explained that the Environment Agency did not base its assessments on emotions. “We measure the forest on the basis of a methodology that is recognised. Even the parties who are of a different opinion in respect of forest have not challenged the methodology of statistical forest inventory,” Denks said. He explained that the Environment Agency looked at the overall national situation, and that it was good in the opinion of the Agency.
Drenkhan spoke of the forest health in changing climate, and the impact of forest diseases on the management of forests and wood resource. In his opinion, logging is definitely positive for mitigating climate change. “Logging is not a bad thing. During climate change, smart forest management, that is, well-planned cutting and reforestation, is the best measure,” Drenkhan said. According to him, it is clear that all is not very well, and the planning of cuttings could definitely be improved.
“As we know, carbon is a valuable good – you all know it better than I do – and forest is a renewable natural resource, so that young and middle-aged forest stands capture more carbon,” Drenkhan said. “Of course, smartly planned forest management means taking into account the forest biota.” He also touched upon the use of the forest resource, and the reasons why that was important. “The forest and timber sector provides employment for around 28,000 people, and indirectly there are some 60,000 jobs that are connected with the forest and timber sector. The forest and timber industry is a major employer in the Estonian rural areas,” Drenkhan said. “In 2018, wood-based products accounted for as much as 16 per cent of the total export of Estonian goods. So we must say that the forest and timber sector is undoubtedly important, and the reasonable management of the sector is important for the Estonian economy as a whole.”
Speaking of forest management and nature conservation, he noted that nature conservation needed to be a responsibility of the whole society and not only landowners’ concern. “However, currently we have a situation where landowners have to bear the damages that are due to restrictions. Nobody thinks that a field of sown crop is everybody’s property, but they somehow think that this is the case with forest. Forest undoubtedly has many important functions, no one is arguing against that, including me; it has more functions than a field does. This is where the expectations of society need to be compensated to landowners.” Drenkhan explained that it was unfair to establish restrictions and then to say that that was a landowners’ concern. It cannot be like that. “I want to say that forestry and cuttings are not a problem; rather, they are solutions. Let us then use this opportunity for the good of our country and people, and let us do it reasonably,” Drenkhan noted.
Helm discussed aspects relating to biodiversity and climate change. According to her, Estonia is home to 50,000 other species besides us, and all these species are connected with various environmental conditions. They constitute ecosystems, interwoven networks of species and inorganic environment that are more resistant to changes if they are more diverse in species and genetically more diverse.
“Maintenance of biodiversity and tackling and adapting to climate change are not in conflict with each other. On the contrary, biodiversity helps us adapt to climate change and also allows to mitigate climate change,” Helm underlined. She explained that old forests with natural dynamics were excellent in retaining carbon stocks, and also absorbed carbon at a very high rate in our climate zone. The older the forests get, the larger the carbon stocks they will have accumulated. “Of course, forests do not store carbon endlessly.”
According to Helm, the claim that more intensive cutting always helps us mitigate climate change may not stand on consistently sustainable grounds altogether. “The contribution of the management of forests to climate change actually depends on how well we are able to differentiate and optimise the pressure to cut in different sites, and how we are able to adopt management practices that save and increase biodiversity and the carbon stock of the forest, instead of clear cuttings,” Helm said.
During the debate, Siret Kotka (Centre Party), Yoko Alender (Reform Party), Heiki Hepner (Isamaa), Jevgeni Ossinovski (Social Democratic Party), Peeter Ernits (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), Jürgen Ligi (Reform Party), Siim Kiisler (Isamaa), Erki Savisaar (Centre Party) and Lauri Läänemets (Social Democratic Party) took the floor.
Video recordings of the sittings of the Riigikogu can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/riigikogu
(Please note that the recording will be uploaded with a delay.)
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