Updated: Dec 12, 2022
Two weeks ago, the Climate Positive Forest Products (CPFP) Field Dialogue took place in Finland, attended by forty global experts from across the Forest-to-City value chain. It was an enriching experience, combining field visits to forests, timber processing facilities and timber buildings, followed by facilitated dialogue sessions where participants discussed the state of play, challenges and opportunities related to European mass timber landscape looking at Finland as a case study, and building on the initial discussions held in 2021 during the Scoping Dialogue. The Field Dialogue was convened in partnership with The Forests Dialogue (TFD), World Resources Institute (WRI), Stora Enso, UPM, the Finnish Forest Industry Federation (FFIF), and the Climate Smart Forest Economy Program (CSFEP).
ALL IS GREEN – SETTING UP THE SCENE
In Finland, everywhere you look, all is green. No wonder, given that 75% of Finland’s territory is covered with forest, making it the most forested country in Europe. Most forest owners are small, owning 30 hectares on average. This makes family-owned and small-scale forestry the cornerstone of Finland’s forestry sector, providing three-quarters of the raw material to the industry. This explains why forests are such an important part of Finland’s identity, and why they are managed in ways that look beyond just selling wood, but instead sustain ecological, economic and cultural values. Spending time in Finnish forests is free to all – according to “Everyman's Rights” rule. Everyone is free to roam and enjoy forests without special permit, including on private land.
While every fifth Finnish family owns some forest land, they do not necessarily depend on them as their primary source of income. The Finnish forestry industry heavily depends on these small owners, and therefore these family owners still need to be properly educated to understand the importance of sustainable forestry practices and of biodiversity importance. This education is provided by large timber producing companies that harvest family-owned forests. In addition, families also have easy access to commercial advisory services on issues such as forest management and felling, provided by Forest Management Associations.
WOOD IS EVERYWHERE
Wood is a mainstream and readily available material in Finland. Data shows that Finland is Europe’s third largest producer of roundwood, after Germany and Sweden, with 85% of volume used for wood products and 15% for fuelwood. Part of this acceptance can be credited to the government pushing for timber usage, as part of their ambitious environmental and climate goals. Finland plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, as well as strengthen carbon sinks and stocks, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of construction and halting the decline of biodiversity. Additionally, there is existing governmental policy for supporting wood construction as demonstrated by the Wood Building Program, which aims at increasing the market share of timber structures in public buildings to 45% by 2025. With strong public and private efforts for scaling wood adoption in construction underway, Finland exhibits a national consensus around using wood as a means to create systemic environmental benefits.
SEEKING A BALANCE
During the field dialogue, we learned that most Finnish forests are managed in accordance with multiple values. They are generally not clearcut, are regularly harvested, with the increment of stock regularly exceeding harvesting volumes. We also learned that there is a strong desire to build with wood, both from the side of the private sector and from government, which has aligned these initiatives with broader climate targets. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal situation for the Forest-to-City value chain. In this unique situation, another question arises, namely what happens if the demand for wood ramps up beyond the sustainable capacity of local forests? Furthermore, how does this increase in commercial forestry practices impact biodiversity and nature+ land management. How can Finland ensure that its increase in wood-based construction is balanced with the carbon capture capacity of its forests? Environmental conservation groups such as the Finnish office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have raised concerns about this scenario playing out, arguing that increased demand for wood products can cause a degradation of Finland’s natural environment by putting too much pressure on their forests, as well as further increasing greenfield development instead of reuse and renovation. Following WWF’s line of argumentation, increasing demand for forest products must be balanced against the potential negative impact to the forests themselves, highlighting the need for forests that maintain the full array of their functional capabilities. This question is at the heart of the Sink, Storage and Substitution (3S) framework, a decision-making tool that looks at systemic and interconnected relationship between forests as carbon sinks and forests as productive landscapes facilitating people’s livelihoods. That framework seeks a middle ground between the “hands off” approach often advocated by conservation groups and the commercial forestry practices important to many local economies.
SPECIES MIX AND BIODIVERSITY AWARENESS
One way to achieve this middle ground would be to increase the sink function of Finland’s forests by introducing more species to the mix. Out of about twenty indigenous tree species growing in Finland, the three most common ones are pine, spruce, and birch. Increasing this number would result in more biodiversity and hence more carbon storing potential without increasing forest coverage. To ensure this strategy can be successful, Finland will need to educate their construction sector about the benefits of utilizing other species of wood, as today it is overly reliant on a small number of species. This way the construction and forestry sectors can share the responsibility of diversifying Finnish forests. This is particularly relevant for mass timber, where a mix of species can even be desirable. Another threat to Finnish forests is biodiversity loss. Finland’s country specific targets on biodiversity in forests, list “increase of deadwood” and “halting the loss of biodiversity” as two key goals. According to a recent study, only one in five Finnish forest owners views the loss of biodiversity as an emergency, reflecting the low priority of this issue among this group. Educating the general public and increasing awareness among private forest owners about the need to protect biodiversity remains an ongoing task in Finland.
THE WAY FORWARD FOR FINLAND
How can Finland build upon its success and strike a balance between forests as carbon sinks and forests as sources of renewable construction material? Whatever the final answer be, it would need to arise from the dialogue between and education of the various groups that depend on forests as well as a new social contract between citizens and authorities. One suggested approach is Climate Smart Forestry (CSF), which is an all-encompassing framework covering forest carbon flows, adaptation to climate change, biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services and the bioeconomy. In practice, CSF is geared towards filling the shortfalls of local forestry practices and is in this sense a place-based approach. From what was established previously, in the case of Finland, it would focus on biodiversity concerns and potential decrease in forest sink levels.
INSIGHTS FROM FINNISH FORESTS
What can the rest of the world learn from the Finnish experience? The Forest Dialogue group visited three forests in Finland - a Kouvola Region commercial forest, a conservation forest and a family forest in order to fully understood the complex interactions of social, ecological and economic factors at play in this unique context. Below are some of the key highlights that are also representative of the wider Finnish forestry sector:
Commercial forests in Finland usually consist of only one planted and dominant species, mostly pine or spruce, with deciduous species like birch coming to the site naturally. This results in homogeneous coniferous stands and trees of the same size, whereas birch trees, which are not planted, are of different sizes, scattered among spruce or pine and tend to dominate the landscape after only a few years. This is why planted seedling sites need to be carefully managed and tended to remove the extra volume of deciduous trees, as they can suffocate the planted ones. At least 10% of deciduous trees are left in coniferous forests for biodiversity reasons. The recommendation to increase this percentage of deciduous trees applies to both commercial and privately owned forests.
Only native species are used in Finnish forestry, with the three dominant species being Scots pine, birch, and spruce. Species like aspen and alder are used for biodiversity values, as well as retention trees in forest management.
Thinning is often done in two or three rounds during the rotation cycle:
1st thinning – for pulp (when the forest stand is around 25 years)
2nd thinning – for pulp and timber (takes place 15 years later)
3rd thinning – for timber
Although recommendations to move towards continuous cover (CC) forestry do exist ever since the Finnish Forest Act allowed it in 2014, forest science in Finland has shown the adverse effects of applying CC forestry on the volume of wood produced, when compared to even-aged forestry. Namely, they demonstrated that adhering to CC forestry principles would result in less growth than in even-aged forests, which would have a trickle-down effect on carbon capture (less of it), as well as on wood sales for private forest owners and wood availability for the industry (less for both). CC forestry would also have a negative impact on species diversity as it would favor spruce, given it is the only shade tolerant species in Finland, leaving the landscape with spruce dominant forests. At the same time, spruce is predicted to be the most vulnerable species in changing climate scenarios because of its low drought tolerance. WWF Finland 2030 Strategy argues for CC forestry to become mainstream practice in Finland by 2030.
Nearly 90% of Finnish forests are under third party certification schemes, mostly PEFC, although some forests are certified under both FSC and PEFC.
Peatlands are a fundamental element of the Finnish landscape, with around 25% of their productive forests located on peatland. This land use strategy challenges conventional forestry practice, which assumes that it is not desirable to plant productive forest on peatland.
There are important logistical benefits in Finland supporting sustainable and economically viable forestry – a good network of roads, lot of regionally distributed mills, and a locally adapted silviculture system.
The author would like to thank Elina Warsta, Senior Manager, Global Forest Affairs at UPM Finland, for her feedback on author’s notes taken during the Field Dialogue in Finland.
 Measured by the proportional share of forest land  Eurostat. (2021, 13 Dec). Wood products - production and trade (https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Wood_products_- _production_and_trade)  3S framework analyzes the dynamic relationship between three key forest functions, Sink, Storage and Substitution, looking at the changing ratios of biogenic carbon as it is being sequestered in trees as they grow, stored in (ideally) long lived wood products and as it substitutes fossil based carbon in conventional construction materials such as cement and steel. It says what happens to the sink function if we harvest too much and how to enhance all three forest functions at the same time. It can serve as a decision making tool, enabling the public sector and developers to take actions which are less carbon intensive. More information can be found here: https://www.csfep.org/our-work.  Research has shown that forests need to be sufficiently diverse to be effective carbon sinks. For more, see: Diverse forests are cool: Promoting diverse forests to mitigate carbon emissions and climate change (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/sae2.12005); Tree species richness increases ecosystem carbon storage in subtropical forests (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2018.1240)  FOREST EUROPE, 2020: State of Europe’s Forests 2020 (https://foresteurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SoEF_2020.pdf)  University of Eastern Finland. "Some Finnish forest owners do not believe in biodiversity loss – for others it is a crisis." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 January 2022. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/01/220131095030.htm  Nabuurs, G-J.; Delacote, P.; Ellison, D.; Hanewinkel, M.; Hetemäki, L.; Lindner, M. By 2050 the Mitigation Effects of EU Forests Could Nearly Double through Climate Smart Forestry. Forests 2017, 8, 484; doi:10.3390/f8120484.  Together possible. WWF Finland Strategy 2021-2030 (https://wwf.fi/app/uploads/c/d/3/uo2znzdpd2yc362p8cjdik/2021_strategia_eng.pdf)