Leaked EU Plan to Green Its Timber Industry Sparks Firestorm

A European Union strategy to boost forest protection has turned a simmering scientific debate into a full-blown firestorm, pitting one of the bloc’s oldest industries against a perceived power grab by technology-driven regulators.

More than two-fifths of Europe is covered by woodlands, which play a pivotal role in capturing and storing greenhouse gases that would otherwise compound climate change when they amass in the atmosphere. Trees are also the foundation of a 640 billion-euro ($760 billion) industry that employs millions of workers who harvest timber for building material and energy.

In a 19-page draft leaked by environmental groups this month, the European Commission wrote that it’s preparing a new suite of high-tech surveillance measures and rules to protect European forests “under increasing strain,” while streamlining governance across all 27 member states. The EU’s executive arm wants to expand woodlands by planting an additional 3 billion trees, even as it encourages more timber use to replace carbon-intensive concrete in construction.

While the strategy drafted in Brussels could be a boon for the environment — as well as the emerging climate-data industry that accounts for carbon emissions — timber merchants wary of stronger restrictions have rallied to fight the proposal.

“The Commission is playing a political game with extremely high stakes,” said Anna Holmberg, a Brussels lobbyist for Sweden’s forest industry, the world’s third biggest, which has called the EU strategy tone deaf to forest owners and investors. The Confederation of European Forest Owners, another lobby group, said it’s concerned that surveillance measures could yield misleading information.

Tension has been building with industry since scientists at the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, or JRC, published a report in July 2020 that found an abrupt increase, by almost half, in harvested forest over a three-year period ending in 2018. They warned that growing demand for timber products risk derailing Europe’s climate goals by damaging an important carbon sink.

Leaked EU Plan to Green Its Timber Industry Sparks Firestorm

To complicate matters further, in April another group of scientists affiliated with the European Forest Institute, a government adviser that oversees an EU facility designed to reduce emissions from deforestation, said the Joint Research Centre had it wrong.

“The large harvest changes reported by JRC result from methodological errors,” the 30 scientists wrote in the journal Nature. “These errors relate to satellite sensitivity improving markedly over the period of assessment, as well as to changes in forests due to natural disturbances — for example drought and storm related die-back and tree-falls — being often attributed wrongly to timber harvests.”

The disagreement over facts underscores the confluence of factors that are making it difficult for policy makers and companies to manage the rising damages wrought by climate change. 

For foresters, a decades-long succession of warmer winters and drier summers has weakened woodland resilience, exposing trees to wildfires and invasive species. Spruce beetles have wiped out millions of hectares, causing billions of euros in damages and forcing loggers to raze affected groves and replant new species of trees.

Over the same period, the European Commission has been funnelling billions into building out a constellation of Earth observation satellites managed by its Copernicus Climate Change Service. The massive volumes of freely-available information they produced has kickstarted a burgeoning new industry of climate-data startups that are angling to support government and business decisions.

Ultimately, accounting for “forest inventories can only be achieved through multi-layered interaction,” that includes satellite data as well as information measured on the ground, said Rolf Schmitz, a founder and chief executive officer of Collective Crunch. His Finnish company plugs satellite data into artificial intelligence algorithms designed to time harvests and maximize the sequestration of CO2. 

To build trust and open up the forestry industry to new digital markets, data scientists have to “verify their facts as well as their error rates,” said Schmitz, who called the Joint Research Centre study “sensational” and questioned its accuracy.

In a July 2 letter sent to the Commission, the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies urged Vice President Frans Timmermans to stick by the EU’s plans to use more satellite surveillance technology to manage forests. The strategy “has the potential to not only meet climate policy objectives, but also create sustainable innovation and economic opportunity,” reads the 3-page document seen by Bloomberg Green.

Getting industry to buy into new ways of doing business on a warmer planet will require more education to go along with the edicts issued from capitals, according to Tomaz Scavnicar, a data scientist who grew up among Slovenian farmers before drawing investment from the European Space Agency to create remote inspection tools.

“At the end of the day, what we’re doing is setting new standards,” he said. “Since the green revolution, farmers and foresters have constantly been faced with new challenges and asked to adapt. They can do it, but want to know who will pay.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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