Biofuels battle resumes on new territory

The battle between those for and against forest-based bioenergy has resumed, this time in Sweden. The reason for the battle is the large, generally well-managed commercial forests that cover much of the Nordics. For centuries these have been used for a variety of purposes, including building out Britain’s Royal Navy, timber for construction and making paper and pulp products. More recently, it has been seen as a feedstock resource for a variety of bio-based products including biofuels and bio-chemicals. The sleeping issue of sustainability was thrust into the limelight by the Commission’s taxonomy proposal, which did not give forests full credit for sustainability, meeting stiff resistance from Sweden’s industry and government. 

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Now the debate has moved from Brussels to Stockholm, with Swedish campaigners’ cause being highlighted in Dagens Nyheter (DN), a prominent Swedish daily. The feature-length article begins on the front page. The paper declares that “A quarter of all Swedish forest biofuel is made directly from tree trunks,” and researchers believe that “many of the trees should have been left standing. It is terrible to do this,” according to Leif Tibell, Professor of Systematic Biology.

DN quotes Sweden’s Minister of Rural Affairs Jennie Nilsson (S), who said that “no felling takes place for the sake of biofuels,” emphasising that it is only about residual products from the forest industry, which are available “for free”, i.e. from residual products in forestry and not from whole trees.” But, DN refutes this, saying that the numbers speak a different language. “Statistics from the Swedish Energy Agency show that 26% of all forest biofuel produced with domestic raw material in Sweden in 2019 came from the tree’s trunk. The Swedish Forest Agency’s figures show that this is over 5 million cubic meters of wood – at least 7% of all logs that were felled.”

DN gives considerable space to assertion that the wrong sort of trees are being used, especially species such as willow and ash, which should be used for timber, and old dead trees, which are important habitat, the claim supported by Professor Tibell (above). According to the CEO of the company managing the biomass, “it is impossible to judge from the logs at the terminal whether certain trees should have been left behind or not – it all depends on how the felled forest looks.” There are processes, but it is the forest owners who must be responsible for ensuring that the rules are followed during felling. Jan Darpö, Professor Emeritus in Environmental Law at Uppsala University, explains that “It is not so strange that no one can say if the rules are followed in felling, the control is too weak.”

DN concludes with Martin Jentzen, a forest management expert, who says sagely that trees that are inappropriately used as fuel “will be explained away as exceptions or mistakes… But there are a lot of mistakes that lie here, you could say.” According to Jentzen, the explanation for so many trees – which would have been more useful as healthy carbon sinks or as a teeming nest for thousands of species – is now being burned, that forestry today is based on clear-cutting. Then you take everything within an entire area, just because some of the trees are suitable for industry.”

Dagens Nyheter continued with a further series of articles this week, highlighting the issues of burning biomass. In a second story, the same journalists report on Estonia, where they observe that Swedish homes are being heated by felling large areas of Estonia forest. It is another long article, which does a fair job of presenting expert opinion. The main thrust of this story is that climate change is too acute an issue to be even thinking about reasonable solutions such as the use of biomass. According to this argument, forests do grow back, but they take far too long to bind the carbon burnt in the trees they replace. 

Then third article in the series looks at the issue of the GHG emissions from “black liquor”, an intermediate product in the production of pulp and paper. The main issue discussed here is that in the words of the headline “a sixth of Swedish emissions disappeared from the statistics”. In the article more emotive words are used to describe this issue – Harry Frank, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ energy committee says that they are “hidden”, and the journalists then go on to say “DN can reveal that huge emissions from biofuels in the pulp industry do not even exist in the voluntary statistics.” In fairness, DN does make a good point that 15MT of emissions per year is very significant in terms of Sweden’s total emissions, of around 100MT (51MT from fossil, 33MT from biogenic material (trees) plus the black liquor of 15-18MT). But, the language is unhelpful. It is not as if anyone was pretending that Sweden wasn’t stacked with pulp mills, and in it seems more driven by journalistic desire for a scoop than anything else.

In summing up reporting for the week, DN’s Climate Editor, Peter Alestig takes a more conciliatory tone, acknowledging the facts and the level of emotion from both the activists and the forest owners and energy industry. 

Mundus Nordic Green News sought out a response from Svebio, the Swedish Bioenergy Association. Gustav Melin, CEO of Svebio, tackles the DN journalism head on, calling it misleading. In his view, “Estonia, like Sweden, has a surplus of carbon dioxide sequestration in its forests, and biofuels from Estonia therefore have no negative climate impact. On the contrary, they enable continued climate-neutral replacement of fossil fuels and thus reduced emissions of fossil carbon dioxide.” Decoding this, what he means is that Estonia’s forest biomass is growing rather than shrinking. The net effect is that CO2 is being absorbed, even if trees, and even some large forest areas are being cut down and burned. Why is more of the Baltic wood burned than Swedish? That is because the region lacks a pulp industry, and so scrap wood has no other economic use, and Estonian pellet production will meet the new EU sustainability criteria. In another press release, Svebio rebuts the argument that so called stem wood, which makes usable timber, should never be used for energy. The Svebio view is that “environmental and forest legislation should ensure that a sufficient volume of dead wood is left in the forest and then let the market decide how the wood that is not needed for biodiversity is to be used. 

Our conclusion

Our view starts from a position that humanity and the world is in a very difficult place. Tough choices are going to need to be made, and given that we live in a democratic society, voters need to be sufficiently well informed about the choices ahead if we are to avoid the worst of global warming.

It is true that forests take decades to grow back, whereas the climate is getting steadily worse. It is also likely that some trees are burned inappropriately – the controls on what happens in individual patches of forest are evidently quite loose. But, in its campaigning journalism, Dagens Nyheter evidently can not see the forest for the trees. There is a lack of perspective on a number of fronts. Not felling any of Sweden’s, or indeed even all of the Nordics and Baltics forests is not going to solve climate change. At best it will be a small reprieve. The paper also ignores the critical principles of the Paris Agreement, where individual countries are invited to propose how they will contribute towards solving the problem. If Sweden wishes to manage commercial forestry, while at the same time it advances green steel and develops biofuels, that is its prerogative, in the same way that it is for example, France’s prerogative to decide to focus on renewable energy, rather than planting new forest sinks across broad swathes of the country, or Germany’s decision to advance a hydrogen strategy. And finally, while facts are important, so also is the tone of the coverage. 

We do believe that that there is a need to put a spotlight on these issues and to help voters understand the real choices we all face. 

Nordic Green News

Photo: Shutterstock

Sean is responsible for Mundus’ strategy and commercial activities. He began his career in the oil industry Australia. After working internationally in commercial roles with BP in South Africa, the UK and Singapore he moved to Sweden with his family in 2009. He worked in business development and then as the Strategy and Growth Director for NASDAQ Commodities from 2009 to 2015. Sean holds an engineering degree from Adelaide University and an MBA from the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia.