Nordic loggers lobbied EU commissioner against forestry protection
Revealed: How the multi-billion-euro Nordic logging sector tried to take an axe to EU-wide climate action
Nordic oil and logging lobbyists repeatedly targeted a Finnish EU commissioner to influence rules in a way that could allow more trees to be burned for electricity generation, openDemocracy can reveal.
Jutta Urpilainen, the commissioner for international partnerships, was extensively lobbied on EU environmental issues between 2020 and 2021 – even though her mandate did not include the environment, climate change or forestry in Europe.
Urpilainen’s department received so many requests – including from two of Finland's biggest companies and key Nordic forest and bioenergy associations – that the EU Commission refused to release more than a fraction of them to openDemocracy, citing the excessive workload involved.
The lobby blitz was launched as the commission prepared a draft revision of the renewable energy directive (RED II) in 2020 and 2021.
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MEPs backed the directive with light caveats in an initial vote in September. One of these was a reduction in the share of trees burned for electricity production that may count toward EU renewable energy targets. The text will now face strong opposition in internal EU discussions.
One energy company warned Brussels that it would lose investors and that the EU’s climate policy could be delayed for a decade under the directive, according to documents from Urpilainen’s offices, which were released to openDemocracy under EU freedom of information laws.
In the releases, which include emails, the minutes of meetings, and lobby pitches, some lobbyists pressured Urpilainen’s team to be allowed to rewrite rules meant to limit, among other things, the ‘clear-cutting’ of forests – or removal of all trees in an area.
The lobbying material is ‘actually quite shocking. It’s factually wrong, populist and, periodically, absurd’
In one of the emails to Urpilainen, Finland’s bioenergy association, Bioenergia, suggested a change to the language used in RED II, claiming an aim to reduce the number of whole trees burned for energy was “very vague”.
The email from Bioenergia continued: “We recommend replacing the term ‘minimising the use of whole trees’ with a more specific and more biodiversity-related action, such as ‘increasing decaying wood in forests’.”
It has been claimed that the lobbyists targeted Urpilainen because of Finland’s close links to the forestry sector.
Slovakian MEP Michal Wiezik, who has seen some of the lobbying material, described it as “actually quite shocking. It’s factually wrong, populist and, periodically, absurd.”
He added: “But, manipulative as it is, it’s clearly been effective in the EU decision-making process.”
One of the lobbyists’ key pressure points was laws impacting biomass for energy, known as bioenergy, which involves the burning of wood, wood scraps and crops for fuel.
Biomass provides almost 60% of the EU’s renewable energy, far more than wind or solar. EU policy states: “For biomass to be effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it must be produced in a sustainable way.”
Both biomass producers and the EU Commission see burning trees for power as a ‘zero carbon’ option if replacement trees are planted to recapture as much carbon dioxide as was stored by the burned timber.
But more than 500 scientists recently protested against this logic, saying it creates a carbon debt that lasts decades – if not longer – until the replanted trees have grown sufficiently to replace the felled ones, assuming they ever do.
Despite this, pressure on legislators to increase biomass supplies for energy is growing as the war in Ukraine drags on towards winter, but it was already strong in 2021.
In an email to Urpilainen that year, SkogsIndustrierna, the trade organisation for Sweden’s pulp, paper and woodworking industry, warned that too much forest protection could “fuel voices of protectionism, anti-EU cooperation and nationalism”. It added: “In other words, the [c]ommission is playing a political game with extremely high stakes.”
Finnish oil firm Neste – the country’s second most valuable brand – also warned Urpilainen’s office that more regulation of biodiesels in RED II would hit investments and stall EU climate policies. The EU has a target to provide at least 14% of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2030, of which at most half can be made up of biofuels made from crops such as palm oil.
Biodiesel production from palm oil plantations has driven terrible rainforest destruction in countries such as Indonesia. In recognition of this, Brussels is phasing out the use of palm oil in EU transport fuels by 2030 and tweaking sustainability rules inside and outside the RED II. Among other things, the EU aims to audit transport fuels for greenhouse gas intensity and ensure that green jet fuels use only advanced bioenergy – made from non-food-based organic energy sources, such as algae, cellulosic materiel, and agricultural residues – and electro-fuels.
Neste officials warned that strengthening sustainability criteria in the RED II “would slow down investments and eventually risk delaying the achievement of [the European] Union’s climate objectives by approximately ten years”.
In redacted minutes of a meeting between unnamed members of Urpilainen’s cabinet and Neste officials in September 2020, seen by openDemocracy, an EU official wrote that if the bloc downgraded bioenergy’s status in a separate green finance list, “Neste, ranked the third most sustainable company on the Global 100 list, fears that they would lose investors.”
Another energy giant, Fortum – Finland’s largest enterprise in terms of turnover – complained to the head of Urpilainen’s cabinet, Taneli Lahti, that the commission was “leaning too heavily on solar and wind” in its sustainable finance plans, according to minutes from a February 2021 meeting. “Gas has a key role as a transitional fuel, which should be recognised also in the taxonomy,” the company said.
Lahti assured the Fortum delegation that his team was also “concerned and therefore associated in the preparatory work” on the sustainable finance proposal.
“Urpilainen follows the item very carefully,” Lahti said, adding that the company’s wished-for phrase “technology neutrality” should be respected in the final version of the directive.
The Nordic forest management model
But why was a former Finnish finance minister ever a point of contact on green finance or RED II? According to Wiezik: “[Urpilainen] shouldn’t have this mandate and doesn’t have this mandate but what plays the [decisive] role here is the nationality of the commissioner in this particular directorate.”
Forestry products make up around 17% of Finland’s export revenues – a sum worth more than €18bn – and the sector employs around 74,000 Finns. Logging in the country has reached such proportions that Finland’s land sector became a net carbon source for the first time this year, instead of a carbon sink as it was previously.
The commission did not respond to a question on why Urpilainen had been so extensively lobbied on forestry.
Critics say that Finland and other Nordic countries have sought to export a model of ‘sustainable forest management’ (SFM) across the bloc.
SFM in Finland involves the use of certification programmes, which, according to the Finnish government, ensure that forest owners benefit from preserving their forests’ long-term vitality and biodiversity.
But environmentalists complain that the certification is inadequately drafted, poorly enforced and allows the clear-cutting of forests, while saying nothing about the burning of whole trees for electricity production, which simultaneously depletes carbon sinks and produces more emissions than coal.
An EU official who spoke to openDemocracy on condition of anonymity described SFM as “a smokescreen for business as usual”.
Finland saw itself as a “role model” for Europe on forest management, and had “a de facto veto” over forestry policy when it allied with partner countries on the European Council, the official added.
Last year, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and four other northern and eastern European countries wrote to the commission, protesting RED II’s planned new sustainability rules – and using similar arguments to Neste.
In an email to Urpilainen’s office, Finland’s biomass association, Bioenergia, suggested changing the language used in RED II in a way that could advance the Nordic SFM concept.
“[The] term ‘whole trees’ is very vague and could create serious problems for interpretation,” Bioenergia’s email said. “We recommend replacing the term ‘minimising the use of whole trees’ with a more specific and more biodiversity-related action, such as ‘increasing decaying wood in forests’.”
MEP Wiezik, a former ecology academic, said this was a “false and stupid” suggestion that “doesn’t make any sense at all”.
More than half the wood logged in Europe is likely to come from ‘whole trees’ – trunks, branches and treetops – rather than industry byproducts or recycled wood, according to the EU’s own scientists.
By labelling an email as ‘short-lived’, the commission is avoiding the obligation to reveal whether it exists
One lobby group, the Finnish Forest Industries Federation, sent Urpilainen’s cabinet a “to-do wishlist for policymakers” urging them to delete a “do no significant harm” injunction in a sustainable finance regulation, which it said would “undermine current forestry management activities including the use of fertilisers and pesticides in forestry”.
Meanwhile, 16 major Swedish forest owners wrote to Urpilainen in July 2021 saying they would “very much appreciate” if “Swedish and Finnish forest experts are included in the work” on the EU’s forest strategy.
A commission spokesperson said: “Commissioner Urpilainen’s cabinet receives many meeting requests and is by default open to exchanging with all the stakeholders within limits of the commissioner and cabinet members’ schedule.
“The commissioner believes in broad dialogue with the EU member states, partner countries, civil society, and private companies. Meetings with civil society organisations or private companies are only accepted when they are registered in the European Commission’s transparency register and meetings that took place are duly notified therein.
“Decision-making in the European Commission is collegial. All cabinets participate in its preparatory meetings and discuss commission proposals prior to their adoption. These meetings are strictly internal in order not to compromise the decision-making of the college [of commissioners].”
Unanswered questions and violated rights
The EU Commission did not respond to openDemocracy’s questions about why Urpilainen’s cabinet was so focused on forestry, nor whether it promoted lobby requests in internal EU discussions, and if so whether any such efforts were successful.
In fact, over a six-month period, the commission flatly refused to search for three emails requested by openDemocracy, which could have shown whether Urpilainen’s office had intervened to advance specific requests by lobbyists.
The commission’s final response on the matter said the emails were considered to be “short-lived correspondence for a preliminary, internal exchange of views”.
openDemocracy is challenging that ruling with the support of the European Parliament’s ombudsman.
Rachel Hanna, a legal researcher for the Access Info Europe transparency campaign, said the emails should have been logged and made available to the public.
“By labelling an email as ‘short-lived’, the commission is avoiding the obligation to reveal whether it exists, and to record it as an official document,” she said.
“This not only violates the right of access to official documents of EU citizens, but it puts at risk the preservation of official decision-making. This narrowing of the right to request, as set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, is unacceptable.”
The commission has used the same argument to try to prevent the release of text messages sent to Pfizer by the EU president Ursula von der Leyen during the pandemic, despite censure from the ombudsman for maladministration.
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