Economist: Preserving more forests today may be worse for the climate in the long run

Reduced logging may be good for the climate in the short term. In the long term, however, this does not necessarily lead to less emissions. The perspectives must be broadened in the debate on forestry activities, according to researcher Robert Lundmark in a new SNS report.

The role of forests in the energy and climate transition, english summary 40.4 KB PDF

Forests face great demands. In addition to contributing with raw materials, forests are also expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, contribute to biodiversity and offer pleasant areas for hiking and other leisure activities. This leads to conflicting political and economic goals, according to Robert Lundmark in the report The Role of Forests in the Energy and Climate Transition, which is part of the SNS project The Green Transition and the Business Sector.

“The fact that there are not enough forests to live up to all demands may seem like a problem, but this is actually the case with all forms of resources. There is not enough oil and iron ore, which is why there is a price for such raw materials. Similarly, we must accept the fact that there are limited forest-based resources and highlight this scarcity by means of pricing. Currently, for instance, forest owners are not compensated for how forests contribute to climate efforts,” says Robert Lundmark, professor of economics at Luleå University of Technology.

When more forested land is set aside to sequester carbon dioxide, there is a risk that there will eventually be an increased impact on the climate. This is partially due to the fact that older forests do not sequester as much carbon dioxide as younger ones and partially due to the fact that less logging reduces the supply of forest-based raw materials that may be used to replace fossil fuels and emission-intensive building materials. In addition, there is also the risk of so-called carbon leakage, as research shows that reduced logging in one country often leads to increased logging in other countries. Hence, it is easy to overestimate the climate benefits of preserving forests.

“Sweden aims to achieve net zero emissions by 2045. This is a fairly short timeframe in terms of the life cycle of trees. And depending on the time horizon, researchers may arrive at different conclusions as to whether the best thing for the climate is if the forest is used or left standing. This also represents an important explanation for why our debate on forestry activities looks the way it does,” according to Robert Lundmark.

In the report, he highlights that there are no universal answers as to how forests should be used. One approach may offer the best balance between different values today but this is not necessarily the case tomorrow. We need to increase our understanding of the complexity of these relationships, he argues, as well as our awareness of how different goals relate to each other.

about the project

The research project The Green Transition and the Business Sector highlights how Swedish companies are affected by stricter climate policies and how regulations and policy instruments may be designed to benefit the climate transition. The project focuses on everything from investment needs and institutional conditions to conflicting goals and vulnerabilities in production chains. The goal is to contribute with knowledge and data to design future measures. The project timeframe is 2023–2025.

about the author

Robert Lundmark is a professor of economics at the Luleå University of Technology. He is mainly engaged in research in the field of natural resource economics with a particular focus on forest-based industries and products.