Marten Kokk: Estonian forestry was not cut down in Europe

Marten Kokk.
Marten Kokk. Source: Private collection

Marten Kokk, ambassador and permanent representative of Estonia to COREPER I, clarifies what was and was not decided at the meeting of environment ministers in Luxembourg last month that fuels the long-lasting debate in Estonia over whether forest felling is sustainable.

We are talking about a well-known suggestions from the "Fit for 55" package, which deals with land use and forestry (LULUCF in the lingo of the experts) and is part of a larger set of measures to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050. The state of the planet is not good, and the goal is completely right in and of itself; and Estonia has long supported it.

Estonia did not receive unfair treatment – the formula is exactly the same for everyone.

Of course, Estonia was not prescribed an unfair or higher green target from Luxembourg than other member states. The formula used to calculate these goals is the same for all member countries. Exactly the same.

The fact that the objectives of countries ranging from Malta to Lithuania are set differently is due to the diverse characteristics and circumstances of their land use and forestry. No one purposely wants to treat others unfairly.

Targets were set for all countries based on the most recent available data. Years 2016 to 2018. In this regard, Estonia was fortunate that this period was chosen rather than a longer or earlier one, because the net sequestration of the Estonian LULUCF sector during this time period has been relatively consistent and stable, at or above 3 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).

So this target, which is now so difficult to attain, was natural for Estonia a decade ago.

Why it is now so difficult to achieve or maintain this level 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?

Countries with only 20-30 percent forest cover and the majority of land used for agriculture, settlements, roads, etc. are able to accomplish this and even increase their net carbon sequestration bonding. How did we get to a point where our forests no longer trap carbon as they used to, emitting instead 1.3 million tons more annually?

Even though Estonia is densely wooded and has a far lower population and infrastructure density than many other nations, we still lag behind Germany, Italy, and Luxembourg in terms of carbon bonding per unit area, let alone Lithuania, Poland or Sweden. Even if we meet our LULUCF objective of 2.5 million tons of net removals by 2030, 14 European countries will have higher LULUCF sequestration capacity than Estonia.

This is in fact a harsh reality that needs to be addressed. And not for the sake of the abstract 'Brussels' goals, but for our own environment.

No one steamrolled Estonia

On the contrary, the French presidency acknowledged Estonia's difficult situation and included a number of flexibilities and compensating mechanisms in the draft text, which allowed Estonia to support the plan.

For the years 2026-2030, Estonia gets an additional 4.9 million tons of CO2 compensation. Along with Slovenia and Latvia, this is one of the highest compensations rates per unit area provided to a country and can be used to compensate for any losses or shortages. In addition, the plan has been amended such that this compensation can be used to offset emissions from the LULUCF sector (not just shortfalls in sequestration).

Additionally, instead of annual binding targets, the target was set for a five-year term, allowing states such as Estonia to spread the cost over the entire period while also addressing the shifting net emissions from the LULUCF sector.

Under pressure from member states, even the penalty mechanism of multiplying the deficit in one year by 1.08 and adding it to the objective for the following year, which would have added to the deficit over time, was eliminated.

Member states have inked in the option of excluding greenhouse gas emissions from the LULUCF sector due to exceptional natural circumstances that result in emissions that are much higher than historical averages, or applying for additional compensation. Such fluctuations may be caused by storms, forest fires, floods or forest infections. Despite opposition from a number of nations, Estonia and a number of other nations included this provision in the draft.

Member states also adopted an extra scaled-up compensation mechanism for the period 2026-2030, which will be available to countries with excess greenhouse gas emissions that prohibit them from attaining their LULUCF objective, even after applying all other flexibility measures and compensation mechanisms.

To qualify for this compensation or "last straw," a country must demonstrate either that its share of peatland is above the EU average and that a portion of its peatland emissions are due to historical (pre-2013) management practices (Estonia is one of these countries) or that excess emissions are the result of climate change.

In this flexibility measure, up to 50 million tons of CO2 are available to be allocated proportionally among those countries that want such additional compensation; in fact, this pot could be shared by up to four countries.

Overall, member states agreed to so many additional flexibilities that environmental organizations were compelled to express harsh criticism of the entire process.

It is also essential to note that this document was not authorized in Luxembourg, and no one there voted on it; instead, a "general approach of the Council" was adopted without a formal vote.

Now, however, the trilogues in the European Union legislative process will follow, during which the European Parliament will certainly attempt to make Council's proposal considerably more ecologically friendly.

From a citizen's perspective, it does not become clear to me why some companies are so eager to spread the narrative that the Estonian forestry industry has been "cut down" in Luxembourg. Thinking along this lines implies that our felling rates should indeed be reduced. I would have assumed that this was not in their interests.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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