Professor Tomas Lundmark has the forest in his blood and enjoys nothing more than exploring its potential with his students. Here he shares his views on the role of forestry in combating climate change, and reveals his favourite spot among the trees.
Tomas Lundmark is professor of silviculture at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). He has dedicated most of his life to the issues surrounding the forest and climate change and he is an active participant in the debate. He answers our questions carefully and thoughtfully and it's clear that he really knows his stuff.
Why have you dedicated your life to the forest?
"I was born and raised in an area of research forest in Vindeln, where I got to know all the old forest researchers and characters and got my first summer job. I had to pick mites for an entomologist. Then one thing led to another. I was initially unsure about working in forestry, but then I applied to the School for Forest Management and the Faculty of Forest Sciences and I was accepted by the latter."
What can forest owners do for the climate?
"The best thing is to manage the forest so it delivers high growth. It's particularly important to re-establish the forest quickly and successfully after harvesting. A good rule of thumb is that more growth means more benefit for the climate. The forest brings these benefits by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis in the needles and leaves. The surplus carbon dioxide is locked in and stored for a long time in the trees and soil or in the products that are created from the tree after harvest. After the forest is harvested, climate benefits also come from the fact that forest products replace products with a major carbon footprint, such as oil, concrete and plastic. This reduces the addition of new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
"In all, this leads to a climate benefit that means carbon emissions of around 50–60 million tonnes less than if the Swedish forest had been left unmanaged. Without our actively managed forest, net emissions of carbon dioxide would be much higher than they are now," says Tomas Lundmark.
Wouldn't it be better to save more forest? Surely that would increase the carbon storage?
"In the short term, not harvesting managed forests would be an effective way of increasing the carbon storage effect. But in the long term, the climate benefits more from harvesting and replanting. This is because unmanaged forest can maintain high growth as long as the mature trees are harvested and replaced with new ones. In the long term, unmanaged forest would have lower net growth.
"If, for example, you stopped looking after unmanaged forest, the growth would remain high initially and a great deal of carbon would be stored in the increasing volume of wood. However, the forest doesn't have room for an infinite number of trees. Eventually, a balance is achieved between the growth of living trees and the decomposition of trees that have died from overcrowding or old age. At this point, the unmanaged forest no longer provides any benefit for the climate."
Some environmental organisations claim that increased harvesting has negative effects on the climate and environment. Why are there such differing opinions?
"Many environmental organisations are looking to support their drive for more forest to be preserved and they refer to studies showing that a carbon deficit occurs after harvest, in other words that the forest's carbon stores fall after harvest, and that this actually leads to increased carbon emissions. This is true in wild forests such as rainforest, but not in Sweden's managed forests. In our forests, growth occurs across the whole landscape and the annual surplus is harvested from mature stands. There is no carbon deficit here. On the contrary, the amount of carbon stored in the forest rises, while at the same time we harvest renewable raw material.
"The forest debate in Sweden has long focused on preserving biodiversity. It's an important issue, but I don't believe there are any climate-related arguments for saving more forest. We need to discuss how much of the forest should be managed in order to combat climate change and how much we can afford to set aside for purposes other than absorbing carbon."
Could the forest be made even more beneficial for the climate?
"The challenge lies in further increasing forest growth, so that more carbon dioxide can be absorbed and even more forest products manufactured. If growth is increased by 50–60% over the next 50 years, Sweden could be the first country to achieve zero net emissions of carbon dioxide. Of course, this assumes that the raw material is actually used for forest products that replace non-green alternatives and not just to cater for increased consumption. It's entirely possible that Sweden could be a fossil-free country within 50 years," states Tomas Lundmark.
Do you have a favourite place in the forest?
"I particularly like walking in the buffer zone between old forest and marshes. It's very special. But I also like to see really successful forest regeneration. When the trees are between five and ten years old and you can see that it's all working the way it was meant to."
When are you happiest at work?
"Almost always, but more specifically when I'm sitting with my students and we're tackling what I call 'how does it work' questions. Then we get caught up in the thrill of discovery and our pens are almost smoking. We're practically fighting for space at the whiteboard. The energy in the room is fantastic."
Text: Anders Thorén
Photo: Johan Gunséus