MEP Nils Torvalds: ‘I’m against the power creep in the EU’s forest strategy’

Sep 24, 2021

Interview by EURACTIV – read the original here.

Nils Torvalds is a member of the centrist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Frédéric Simon ahead of an event organised on 28 September by the European paper industry association (Cepi) and the Finnish Forest Industries Federation (FFIF).

The European Commission presented an EU forest strategy in July. What would you say are the positives and negatives of that policy document?

There was, I think, a lot of misunderstandings in the very beginning of the process. Pressure was exerted on the European Commission to get decisions made in a way that is not in conformity with the treaty.

And there is now a risk of competence creep, where the European Commission and also the European Parliament, in small steps, infringe on the rights of the member states. That would be contrary to Article 5 of the Treaty on the European Union, which describes the rights of the Union and the rights of the member states.

And that’s the issue we have with the Commission’s proposal for the forest strategy.

I had a discussion with [Environment Commissioner] Virginijus Sinkevičius before the forest strategy was published, where he said he doesn’t like clear cuttings but has no power to ban it. That was sort of an acknowledgment that the real power on forestry is in the hands of the member states.

And now there is this EU forest strategy that is trying to enlarge the rights of the European Union – it complicates the issue and it’s against the Treaty.

The counter-argument is that forests act as “carbon sinks”, which the European Commission considers as a crucial part of the EU’s climate strategy. Do you recognise that, indeed, there is a big role for the forestry sector in meeting the EU’s climate targets?

Yes, but at the same time, if you read Article 4 and 5 of the Treaty, it clearly states that the measures taken by the Union should be proportionate and that the Union should do as little as possible. That’s the meaning of the treaty. Because this is not a Federation.

Therefore, I don’t really accept the argument that we should overstep what’s in the Treaty. We should first try to find other solutions.

And those solutions have to be proportionate, meaning that the Union has a right to say where we should be aiming on a very general level. But the decision of what to do should be left to the member states.

Take biodiversity for example – it diverges radically from one country to the other. Those measures need to be defined by the member states. And that’s the principle of proportionality. I’m against the power creep in the Commission’s forestry proposal.

What do you think can be the added value of a forestry strategy at the European level? Do you see any positives in the Commission’s proposal?

First, we would need to define what would be the added value. A French forest, for instance, looks very different from a Finnish forest and there is no one measure that can be taken on a Union level that would fit both.

In France, forests are biologically much older than the Finnish boreal forest, which started developing after the Ice Age 10,000 years ago. France did not have an Ice Age, and the forest there is probably 100 times older than the Finnish forest, which means that the biodiversity is much more complicated and less general than in the Finnish forest.

Therefore, there is no single measure that can suit a French and a Finnish forest at the same time.

So you believe there’s no added value to a European forest strategy?

There is no such thing as a European forest. There are different forests – which might be Spanish, Greek, German, etc. And if you don’t acknowledge that there are different forests, then you are living in Fantasyland.

One of the aims of the Commission’s forest strategy is to protect so-called primary and old-growth forests. Do you do you support that objective? And what do you think should be the definition of old-growth, because this can vary from one country to the next?

Probably there is no such thing as a primary forest in countries like The Netherlands. So again, if you’re speaking in general terms about the primary forest, then you are not addressing the real issue.

Now, if you express worries about the primary forest in Finland, then we’re on the same page. The primary boreal forest extends roughly from Sweden to the Ural Mountains in Russia. And the primary forest there is abundant, very abundant actually.

But if you look at the primary forest in Central Europe, most of it was probably destroyed during the 30 Years War in the 1500s, and again during the First World War and the Second World War.

So again, any discussion on this needs to be based on facts, not ideology. And as a former journalist, I do expect reporters to have basic knowledge about the different forms of forests and to know what the primary forest is in the different member states. And that’s not the case in this discussion. What I hear very often from my former journalist colleagues are ideological concepts that are not based on the facts. And I don’t like that ideological approach.

Well, there are policy proposals put forward by the European Commission. And your job eventually as a Member of the European Parliament will be to vote on those proposals…

That’s not correct: I’m going to vote on what we have changed from the Commission’s proposal.

Ok, so let me ask you: one of the ideas contained in the Commission’s forest strategy is to promote ‘Carbon Farming’, where forest owners can be remunerated for initiatives that restore the ability of forests and soils to store carbon dioxide. There is something similar in the so-called LULUCF regulation, which aims to grow European carbon sinks from the forests. Do you agree at all with this idea? And if so, what do you think should be the underlying principles to guide such a policy?

Let’s go back again to the facts. Carbon farming was a pilot project proposed by the European Parliament, and actually by me – myself – four or five years ago. The pilot project in southwestern Finland aimed at measuring what carbon farming could produce in sequestering carbon on a farm. And I’m perfectly okay with that.

So yes, I’m a big enthusiast of carbon farming. But again, we need to find out how much the different meadows, fields and soils can do when it comes to carbon sequestration. And there, I still lack some information from the Commission.

The Commission has not yet tabled detailed proposals for this, so what do you think should be the principles underpinning any EU proposal on carbon farming?

First is to measure exactly how much carbon can be sequestered. Then, decide how much would be paid for each ton of carbon sequestered. But we can’t have that as long as we don’t have the figure on the amount of carbon that can be sequestered.

And that depends on the circumstances. In northern Finland, for instance, there is nearly 24h of daylight in the summertime. And that allows a fair amount of carbon sequestration from forests. In areas with shorter daylight time, you probably have a lower amount of carbon sequestration.

So we have to find something which is even-handed for the different Member States, which might be slightly complicated.

But I think this is interesting, and we should try to find a solution for carbon sequestration, which functions as a sort of complement to the ETS.

The Commission is preparing a proposal to certify carbon removals from forestry, agriculture or technological solutions like direct air capture. Is that something you would support as an MEP?

Yes. But again, there are different circumstances. Taking carbon capture and storage for instance, there might be a big difference between natural solutions like forestry and technological solutions, like CCS. So I think the Commission has a lot of work to do to find something which is doable.

Coming back to forestry, wood products actually store carbon dioxide and can also act as a substitute for fossil fuels. Is that function of forests sufficiently recognised in your view?

In the last mandate, we spoke a lot about LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry) and HWP (harvested wood products). At that time, the question of harvesting wood for construction came up. In buildings, the carbon can be stored for 100, 200 years or even 600 years if you consider Norwegian churches.

With new technologies, you can use wood fibres to replace cotton, there are two or three pilot projects in Finland on that. Cotton uses a lot of water, it caused the depletion of the Aral Sea. So replacing that with wood fibres could be a good solution for the future. Forest products can also be used as alternative fuels for airplanes, to diminish their carbon footprint.

And again, we have to find a balance where we use the forest resources in a responsible way. And that goes back to proportionality: the Union should spell out the objectives and leave the member states to decide how to meet them.

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