In order to avoid the ever worsening effects of climate change, first, the emissions of greenhouse gases have to be stopped and, second, the carbon that has already been emitted has to be captured from air so that atmospheric concentrations decline. Typically, the amount of greenhouse emissions and the atmospheric concentrations are expressed in tons of carbon dioxide or just carbon (once other greenhouse gases are converted into carbon dioxide equivalents). Carbon balance is calculated by subtracting carbon sinks from carbon emissions, thus it is equal to net emissions (net emissions = gross emissions – carbon sinks).
In Finland, the biggest emissions sources are energy production, industry, construction, heating, transport and agriculture. The forests constitute the major sink. Consequently, the development of the carbon balance is dependent on the aggregate amount of emissions and the level of forest use.
By 2035 at the latest, Finland must be carbon neutral, i.e., the sum of emissions and sinks must be zero. Immediately after that, sinks have to be bigger than emissions, so that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere can be reduced.
From the perspective of global justice (historical responsibility, capacities), the Finnish emission reduction schedule has to be globally among the fastest. Also the economical benefits of first-mover advantage support an ambitious goal.
The goal is based on the recommendations of the UN International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the Finnish Climate panel on the measures necessary for reaching the targets of the Paris agreement, i.e., limiting global warming under 2°C and striving for maximum 1,5°C warming. According to the Finnish climate panel, carbon neutrality has to be reached in the 2030’s. The Rinne/Marin government has set its carbon neutrality target for 2035.
How is progress measured?
As part of tracking the compliance with international treaties (Kyoto protocol, Paris agreement) and EU emission targets, Statistics Finland compiles data on greenhouse gas emissions and sinks. The data contains the amount of gross emissions (in the EU, the data is divided into emissions on the emission trading sector and outside of it) and emissions allocated to land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). In Finland, the emissions of the LULUCF sector are, due to forests, negative, i.e., a sink. The combination of these gives the carbon balance.
The development of the carbon balance in Finland looks different depending on the period of analysis. Starting from the frame of the Kyoto protocol, 1990, Finnish gross emissions have declined ca. 20 Mt (from 70 Mt to 50 Mt). However, the interval also contains periods of increase, and in the early 00’s gross emissions topped 80 Mt. Neither the rate or amount of decline has, so far, been on track for reaching the goal of carbon neutrality by 2035.
At the same time the size of sinks has also varied. In practice, the size of sinks is dependent on the amount of logging: more logging means a smaller sink and vice versa. At its biggest, the sink has been 30 Mt and at its smallest 10 Mt. Together with the variation in gross emissions, the variation in sinks has meant that net emissions have also increased between some years. (In the period 2000–2018 net emissions declined from 51 to 46 Mt, which is much too slow a rate in view of the goal.)
As both emissions and sinks impact on net emissions, their relative contribution has been discussed heatedly in the public. In principle, if all logging would be discontinued, sinks would be maximized and could balance out all emissions. In the reverse case, if logging is maximised and sinks disappear, more drastic emission cuts in other sectors, such as energy production, heating and transport, become necessary. From a systemic perspective, this dispute detracts from the main issue: in order to reach net negativity, emissions have to be stopped and sinks increased.
It is important to emphasise the urgency of the targets of carbon neutrality and negativity. First, the longer the period that excessive carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere, the bigger the radiative forcing (warming) that it causes, and the more likely it is that widespread and irreversible damage will occur (such as losing whole ecosystems or widespread melting of glaciers), even if some of the warming is later reversed. Second, there is no scientific certainty that the capture and storage of carbon overshoot (more carbon in the atmosphere now, and a quicker decline to neutrality later) will return the climate to a former, cooler state.
Consequently, not only the date of reaching carbon neutrality matters but also the path by which it is reached. The lower the emissions before neutrality and the faster neutrality comes, the better the chances of avoiding more dangerous impacts. The urgency pertains both to cutting emissions and to growing sinks. This also means that increasing loggings with the purpose of replacing fossil fuels with biofuels is misguided. The capture and storage of the carbon released due to logging and burning will take the forest tens of years, and is therefore outside the temporal scope of the carbon balance goal (not to mention the biodiversity loss due to logging).
Carbon neutrality is not the final target, as eventually the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has to be diminished. Fortunately, there are methods of carbon capture that at the same time help in achieving other sustainability goals, such as biodiversity, food security and equal development. For instance, the IPCC report on Global Warming of 1,5°C degrees emphasises that by supporting natural systems such as forests, wetlands and soils carbon can be captured and stored. At the same time, these measures of ecosystem protection and restoration, including also suitable agricultural practices, support water systems and prevent erosion. In Finland, for instance, new practices on peatlands can transform them from carbon sources into carbon sinks.