An EU conference in Brussels last week on the future of forests underlined both the vulnerability of forests to the impacts of climate change such as droughts, fires and diseases and their decisive role in tackling climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and providing products to replace emissions from fossil fuels and materials. Trees stand for life. Through the fundamental photosynthesis process, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, create energy which they convert to carbon-storing wood and release oxygen.
While focusing on the forests in EU, the conference also highlighted the global changes in limiting deforestation and protecting remaining rain forests.
“Forests are one of our key allies in fighting climate change,” said Miguel Arias Canete, Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, at the conference. Referring to the Paris Agreement and last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he warned against the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C and the partly irreversible consequences arising from exceeding this threshold.
He sounded the alarm and said that the current climate plans put forward by countries as their nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement are estimated to take us to a rise between 2.7 and 3.4°C.
Forests have two critical functions in the context of climate policies. Absorbing CO2 for their growth, forests act as carbon sinks. Providing biomass for material or energy purposes, forests offer an alternative to the use of fossil fuels. “This means that policy-makers and forest-owners need to strike a careful balance between these two functions.”
A significant change in fighting climate change took place in May 2018 when the EU adopted the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation, which sets a binding commitment for each member state to ensure that accounted emissions from land use and forestry are entirely compensated by an equivalent removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere through action in the sector.
Peter Holmgren, a Swedish forestry expert and former Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), underlined the need for sustainable and long-term economically viable forest management to ensure that forests are not degraded or deforested. “Young forests grow faster and absorb more CO2, “he said. “Active forestry will increase the function of forests as carbon sinks.”
Commissioner Canete agreed: “Without further action, the capacity of our forests to absorb CO2 is projected to decline, due to the natural ageing of trees.”
But Holmgren was critical to look at this as their only role. “It’s a structural problem in climate change policy to limit the role of the forest sector to carbon sinks. Further climate benefits can be achieved by replacing fossil fuels and fossil-based materials by wood products.”
Substitution has a significant effect on the reduction of CO2 emissions, he says, and took Sweden as an example. In the last 100 years, the net result of growing forests on the absorption of CO2 has doubled and amounts today to about 43 million tonnes per year. The substitution effect is even more significant and is estimated to keep another 50 million tonnes of fossil CO2 underground every year.
According to the Commission, forests and other wooded land have been steadily increasing and cover about 43% of the EU territory. But Peter Holmgren says to The Brussels Times that while forests are managed relatively well in Europe, the connection to value chains and products is not as effective as in Sweden and Finland and there are fewer incentives for investing in growth.
Asked if deforestation in EU is a problem, a Commission official told The Brussels Times that cases of forest degradation and illegal logging have become more prevalent in recent years. “There are concerns about illegal logging in several EU member states, as illustrated for instance by the recent Bialowieza ruling of the EU Court of Justice on a protected forest in Poland.”
Illegal logging and associated trade are fought in the EU policy since the adoption in 2003 of the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. The regulations prohibit the placing of illegally harvested timber on the EU market and require operators that source wood domestically or import it to exercise due diligence, towards the negligible risk of illegality.
There are concerns about the state of Europe’s forests concerning biodiversity and soil indicators, adds the Commission. “The Commission reported that 60% of forest and woodland species have still an unfavourable conservation status.” At EU level, other legislation such as the Habitats Directive obliges member states to take appropriate steps to avoid the deterioration of natural habitats.
In a global perspective, Peter Holmgren says that deforestation is declining and that a turning point seems to have been reached in protecting rain forests. He also pointed out that forests are returning on marginal farmland that have been abandoned in many parts of the world due to urbanization in growing economies. The Commission is more worried and describes the rate of global deforestation as still alarmingly high.
“According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 7.6 million hectares of global forests were lost each year between 2010 and 2015, mainly in the tropics. Deforestation is a complex issue, caused mainly by agriculture expansion.” The Commission will publish a Communication later this year on stepping up EU actions against deforestation and forest degradation.
In a symbolic gesture during the conference, Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, planted a tree together with children in the Cinquantenaire Park in Brussels. He also announced the idea of a “1-hectare initiative”, which would give member states the option to reward farmers with payments for the afforestation of one hectare.
In January 2019, several stakeholders representing forests and forest-based industry called on EU to update the EU Forest Strategy dating from 2013. Given the increasing demands on the forest sector, more needs to be done already in 2019 both at EU and national level to ensure better policy consistency.
How would the Commission summarise the results of the conference? It brought together stakeholders and participants representing all forest-related interests and concerns. What emerged from the conference were increasing policy challenges in safeguarding healthy and resilient forests in Europe and promoting sustainable forest management against the backdrop of climate change.