By Linnea Sjögren

In light of energy security concerns, and a wish to part from fossil-based energy sources, global interest in renewable energy has skyrocketed. Bioenergy in particular has been a focus within the European Union (see also Biomass – an Energy Source of the Future?).  One major enquiry is how the Scandinavian countries, with their extensive boreal forest cover, can offer significant sources of biomass. Forest-derived biomass has the potential to substitute for carbon-intensive materials such as oil and coal, and further refined biofuels have the potential to replace oil as a primary transport fuel. Cellulosic ethanol and diesel for example, which is made from otherwise discarded forestry by-products, require few modifications to already-established combustion engines, thus providing for a smooth transition to renewables. It also provides a profitable use of otherwise discarded wood chips, bark, saw dust and black liquor (the by-product from the conversion of wood into wood pulp for the paper industry).  For these reasons, investments in the biofuel industry are supported by EU directives and play a massive role in Sweden’s renewable energy action plan.     

New developments and initiatives in the biofuel industry present bioenergy from forest materials as a nearly new and radical idea. In truth, forest derived materials have always played a key part in the modern Scandinavian economy. Historically, wood has been the most convenient energy source for heating and cooking, as well as having laid the foundations for a successful development of the national economy. Compared to forest-derived energy, fossil fuels such as oil and coal have had a late and rather short rule in Sweden.  The main area where Sweden depends on fossil derived energy is in the transport sector which is why the country’s strategy is to go completely fossil free, by replacing fossil-fuels with biofuels. (See: IRENA, 2019). 

To derive one’s livelihood from forestry is a tradition which is deeply engrained into Scandinavian culture and heritage. As such it has enabled Sweden to keep its forest cover.  Because of the accessible and abundant access to forest products, it provides an attractive opportunity for the country to be self-reliant on biomass. Half of the Sweden’s forest-cover is privately owned, meaning that a large part of the population plays an active role in this energy transition.  Most Swedes possess a strong connection to forestry, and my family is no different. Both of my parents were heirs to forests passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. It is safe to say that the forest has been a family asset of great pride. Our timber has not only built our homes, but also nearby villages and towns. By-products such as discarded wood, twigs and unusable branches have been burnt for heating, either in our own homes or in the local heat plant, providing an entire community with warmth.     

Photograph of branches being taken for biomass processing.
Figure 1: Slash and discarded branches being picked up to go to the local heat plant.  Stefan Sjögren, 2020.

 There is undoubtedly an idyllic sheen over the forestry lifestyle. It can be seen as honourable to take a position as steward over an important natural resource. Not to be disguised, however, is the importance of the economic revenue we derive from the forest. Forestry is a tough business which must be financially lucrative to be worth pursuing in the long term. This is an important reason as to why forest and sawmill owners are the main drivers for the push towards biofuel production. It provides an attractive opportunity to create revenue from otherwise wasted products that not even the paper mills can process (See: IRENA, 2019). The profitability of the entire industry is, however, threatened by climate change, and this affects the industry’s reliability as both a source of income and energy provider. It is complicated to simultaneously depend on forests as an energy source as well as a carbon sink. Despite the forests intimidating scale and dense appearance, their existence sometimes depends on factors beyond human control. My family, for example, has experienced the devastating consequences of climate change induced storms; ‘Gudrun’ in 2005 felled a year’s harvest worth of timber in just one night. Similarly, the storm ‘Per’ in 2007 reached a similar magnitude of damage. The increasingly warmer climate also impacts the prevalence of pests such as bark beetles, which have the capacity to pulverise large stands of trees from the inside out. The only cure is to keep felling trees to prevent further spread.   

Photograph of forestry block
Figure 2: A patchwork of clear fells and thick forest in early winter. Stefan Sjögren, 2020

Having said that, promoting bioenergy as a secure renewable solution for energy security can be problematic. Not only because of future unstable environmental conditions, but also because the very nature of forestry is exploitative and not as sustainable as often portrayed. The idealistic solution of utilising forests to meet energy demands has been increasingly criticised by some academics. Some suggest that the rate at which carbon is stored, compared to the rate at which it is released, is still temporarily displaced.  Each tree which is felled in Sweden is legally required (according to The Forestry Act) to be replanted by at least one other tree. However, this restorative measure has been criticised for its insufficiency in compensating for the comparatively rapid release of carbon. Forests take a long time to mature, and a typical boreal forest takes 70-120 years until it has reached peak maturity. This means that an increased harvest of boreal forests (such that increased dependence on bioenergy would require) creates an immediate carbon debt which would require 190-340 years to repay.  This time span is not sufficient for our rapid consumption and immediate energy demand. Large-scale wood harvesting is thus not sustainable, despite generous regeneration of woodland.  Should biofuel demands increase too rapidly, a sustainable supply of forest derived biomass might be impossible to maintain. Boreal forests are thus not suitable to be a singular provider of biomass for bioenergy (on other sources of Biomass, see ‘Is it really renewable, for peat’s sake?’) .

Forests are also more than just trees. They hold a more significant role than being keepers of carbon and biomass. Forests can act as a living museum and may hold extensive cultural and historical value. My family’s forest, for example, is a palimpsest of clandestine historical records. It keeps ruins of old buildings and storage cellars which once belonged to our ancestors. However, it is not only the landscape revealed from clear cuts that holds significance, but the trees themselves. Due to the long lifespan of boreal trees and the long-term investment that is a forest, we are today harvesting trees planted by my great grandfather. Stands of trees, which were precedent of trees planted by his grandfather, were donated to the heat plants during the Second World War. The trees that he subsequently planted in the 40´s will now contribute to our needs considering another concern for energy security: “It has gone full circle”, as my father would say. Foresters take pride in their role as stewards of ancestral lands as well as being suppliers of resources which can benefit an entire nation. The nature of having such a vast amount of privately owned forests further gives us greater control and sense of informed responsibility for our local environment. It has meant that my family could utilize this privilege to grant amnesty for a larger proportion of deciduous trees than required by law – a way for us to contribute to increased biodiversity. It gives us a sense of ethical liberation from the responsibilities of global environmental degradation, in our own way. We know that we are doing our bit of the joint endeavour for sustainability.  

Photograph of older man on sofa
Figure 3: Authors’ great grandfather Albert Andersson. From great uncle Roland’s archive
Photograph of felled trees
Figure 4 : Stands of birch and pine trees left after the harvest.  Photo: Stefan Sjögren

Conclusively, forest derived bioenergy is often regarded as carbon neutral due to the rigorous laws regarding renewal of forests in Sweden. It is further regarded to be a climate friendly alternative to fossil derived energy resources. Therefore, the European Union at large wants to increase investments in this sector. What many academics have suggested, however, is that a closer look at the timescales at which trees grow throws carbon neutrality off the sustainable bandwagon (See: Holtsmark, 2011; Kilpeläinen et al.2016; Bentsen, 2017). This means that, during a heftier dependence on forest derived bioenergy, a lack of mature boreal forests to maintain sufficient supply might become problematic. What worries me is the state in which our forests will reach a heightened demand; where waste products might not suffice, and productive trees will have to fill in. What policy changes will be required then, and how will Swedish forestry change? Acknowledging that in light of previous energy crises we had to donate our trees, the question prevails whether independent foresters will be able to maintain the generational and inheritance-based mode of forestry. A mode of forestry that proves to be vastly important for our cultural reproduction. I cannot help but reminisce about the trees which my great grandfather Albert would have planted. Their glory days being gone now, and with them the in-situ re-telling of the stories attached to them.