Mart Erik: LULUCF is still suffocating the Estonian forest sector

Mart Erik.
Mart Erik. Source: Private collection

Even if we continue re-generational felling at the current rate, our forests will reach their peak carbon sequestration age by 2050, writes forest grower Mart Erik, in response to a high-ranking official.

After reading Marten Kokk's opinion piece "Estonian forestry was not cut down in Europe," I felt compelled to write this story. Marten Kokk is Estonia's ambassador and deputy permanent representative to the COREPER I [the committee that prepares the agenda for EU ministerial meetings].

The "Fit for 55" legislation proposal aims to help EU nations achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. This legislative package includes, among other things, the proposal to regulate the use of land and forest (LULUCF - land use, land use change and forestry).

Marten Kokk writes in his opinion piece: "Clearly, Luxembourg did not treat Estonia unfairly or more sternly than other countries. The formula used to calculate these targets is the same for all member states. Exactly the same. /.../ The target was established for all nations based on the most recent available data, from 2016 to 2018."

First of all, I do not see why it is acceptable that a 2050 objective for Estonia has been established on three arbitrarily selected years from 2016 to 2018. Second, why should all member states have the same goal when the condition of the woods, their composition, their history, etc. differ widely from country to country? Moreover, we should not forget that our forestry industry has been seriously "cut down."

But never mind. Let's take a closer look at Marten Kok's justification, and I'd like to emphasize that the discussion that follows does not apply to the pristine, pre-war RMK woods, which are comprised of more than 840,000 hectares of former manor and crown forests, but only to private forests.

Considering the past

To gain a better understanding of the situation and see the connections, let us go back to 1939, when revolutionary events in Estonia began to unfold.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact led to the Soviet Union's annexation of Estonia and in June 1941 the first echelon of Estonia's best farmers was deported to Siberia. The country was then devastated by the Second World War, forcing more people to flee their homes and land. Another "fortune" brought us the re-annexation of 1944, the deportation of the remaining workers to Siberia, and in 1949 the establishment of collective farms.

Tragic events transpired over this brief ten-year period, resulting in the loss of enormous expanses of pasture, hay and arable land, which ultimately turned into woods.

To avoid sounding too general, I will discuss a bill from 1939. During a large-scale agricultural census undertaken at that time, 139,991 farms in Estonia were registered, and all of their assets, including land use, tools, chickens, and gooseberry bushes, were recorded.

It was revealed that in 1939, the farmers owned 189,300 hectares of forest land, including Narvatagune and Petserimaa, which we no longer have. [In November 1944, the Petseri area and Narvatagune, an area east of the Narva River, were transferred to the Russian SFSR.]

As is well known, with the establishment of the Soviet regime private farmland was nationalized and given to kolkhozes, sovkhozes, and some smaller establishments (for example, fisherie-kolkhozes).

Moreover, from the data of the 1966 forest management census, in which the aforementioned areas are listed separately, we can again see that 614,000 hectares of forest land at that time were in the possession of kolkhozes, sovkhozes, etc.

It turns out that the forest area increased by more than threefold in the 27 years between 1939 and 1966. The majority of this land has now been reclaimed, and this is what accounts for two-thirds of Estonia's total annual regeneration felling today.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the liquidation of collective farms and sovkhozes and the process of land restitution led to the growth of forest land. This is the genesis of the 209,000 hectares of grey alder forest, which has a rather short life span, is mostly used for heating, and contains around 30 million cubic meters of trees.

Now we return to the question raised by Marten Kokk: "Why it is now so difficult to achieve or maintain this level (2016-2018 – ed.) is a question for forestry experts, but the lingering concern is: how is it that Estonia, a forest-rich country (with more than 50 percent of its land forested), cannot even ensure a balance between greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration in the LULUCF sector today?"

Such a question can only be posed by someone who lacks a deeper understanding of the foundations of forestry as well as the ability to place it in historical context. The events in forestry unfold over long periods of time, and the scrubland that resulted from the loss of agricultural land between 1939 and 1949 has been turning into mature forest, explaining the need for today's higher felling rates.  

It is a completely natural process, so there is no reason to be surprised. The insignificant and arbitrary three-year period (2016-2018) is not representative of Estonian forests because it does not reveal trends or the actual state of affairs. We have been completely outsmarted with this three-year period.

Unfortunately, Marten Kokk's review reveals that the Estonian negotiators, who were most likely relying on Ministry of the Environment guidelines, had, to put it mildly, no general knowledge of forestry.

The comparison of the Estonian situation to that of Luxembourg in an opinion piece (link in Estonian) "Estonia got almost everything it wanted in the 'Fit for 55' negotiations" by former head of the European Commission's Representation in Estonia Keit Kasmets is likewise incompetent, because the two countries are not comparable in terms of their natural, historical and economic conditions.

What happens next?

It may appear problematic, but it's actually not that bad. Estonia, like Luxembourg, may not be able to meet its targets by 2030, but our forest stock will reach the required sequestration levels by 2050, the date by which we have committed to becoming carbon neutral – still 27 years away.

As it was also the case during the 27-year period that spun between 1939 and 1966, when the forest stock tripled. And I suspect that Luxembourg may come hat in hand begging in 2050 for our forest's carbon pump quotas. They may still have the money to do that.

Let me clarify my position

First, keep in mind that nearly half of a tree's dry weight is made up of carbon that has been locked away from the atmosphere. This is why younger forests capture carbon more effectively than mature forests because their annual increment is many times greater.

So even if we maintain commercial forest regeneration felling at the same rate as in recent decades, our forests will reach their peak carbon sequestration age in 2050.

To make this point stronger, we could also use data from a forest inventory carried out on January 1, 1973, which showed that the total stock of forest in kolkhozes and sovkhozes had increased by 30 percent from 1966, that is, within seven years only. Based on this information, we can confidently say that we will meet or even exceed the "plan" for carbon sequestration in our forests by 2050 (assuming that the negation thereof from other areas of life is at reasonable level), the result we can proudly report to the EU's Timmermans' and family of nations.

Of course, if the world itself is still around at the time. The forest certainly will be!


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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