Trees cover 68 per cent of Sweden. Forestry and wood manufacturing claim to make up 10 per cent of its economy and statistics show the wildlife in its forests is increasing. Sweden is also home to wood-using giant IKEA and high levels of personal happiness.
While these facts aren’t necessarily connected, and Scotland’s comparable numbers are more modest, we have aspirations to improve our forest cover of 19 per cent, so I was interested to learn more on a recent visit to Sweden.
Perhaps the most surprising point was hearing repeatedly that the sector must do more to tell the story of Swedish forestry – to Swedes.
It has long frustrated me that awareness of forestry in Scotland, while increasing, is still relatively low. However, it appears well-wooded countries with established forestry sectors face similar communications challenges.
Scots are aware of trees, of forests and (generally speaking) know that trees grow and die and some have leaves and others have needles. However, both here and in Sweden, there is little understanding of the ‘story’ of how we seek to manage those forests and their benefits for society.
Does that matter? I believe it does, and Sweden’s recent experience shows why.
In Sweden, as part of the response to climate change, there is discussion about the bioeconomy, using renewable raw materials like wood to produce more of what we use and consume every day. This ranges from cereal boxes to cosmetics, to the wood we use to build and furnish our homes, and possibly how we heat them and the electricity we consume. The challenge is that, even in Sweden, wood availability is finite.
If demand exceeds supply how do we, how does government, prioritise who gets the raw material and for what end purpose?
Like most countries, Sweden has prioritised the production of renewable energy, giving incentives that increase the energy sector’s relative buying power compared to traditional customers like sawmills.
Given that, in carbon reduction and job creation terms, these traditional markets generally perform better, there is a danger that a public policy priority (decarbonising energy) can produce unintended consequences.
Another issue is a continued drive to set aside areas of forest with a sole focus on wildlife. This is attractive to politicians as it is simple to achieve and publicise, gains plaudits from environmental groups and makes politicians look good to an increasingly urban society that must make sense of, and respond to, huge environmental challenges like climate change.
But, if wildlife in forests is increasing due to new management techniques, surely that should be the focus? Doing so would mean Sweden’s forests would still help to tackle climate change by locking up carbon in wood products and contribute to the bioeconomy. Scotland has been shielded from some forestry debates because the sector has been growing. Wood availability has increased steadily since the 1980s and although a little stop-start at times, total forest area has continued to increase.
We have debated burning wood for more large-scale electricity or for sawmilling, and Confor has successfully put the case for the latter. However, we have also seen forests cleared to build wind turbines when there is plenty of open land.
There are debates around so-called ‘native’ and ‘exotic’ trees, with the former assumed by some to always have a higher societal value than the latter, and on the relative merits of planting by small communities against farmers, large landowners and inward investors. When there are so many competing narratives, unsurprisingly, those outside of the world of forestry struggle to grasp the story.
Society and wildlife need more forests to tackle climate change, reduce flooding, diversify agriculture, produce renewable materials and support rural jobs. This means the forestry sector needs to take more collective responsibility in how it communicates.
Trees provide a flexible palette with which to design forests for a range of simultaneous purposes – the environment, economy and people – underpinned by a commitment to high standards of sustainable management and planting the right trees in the right places. We can do more to maximise the benefits, and I’m keen for Confor to collate evidence on the biodiversity benefit of modern productive forestry.
We need to learn from the Swedes and collectively share the story of forestry. If we don’t, we run the risk of failing to achieve what we collectively wish to see happen and increase the danger of future unintended consequences.
Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor.