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“Forests are the green lungs of our planet”

Typical landscape in Estonia. © Copyright European Commission 2017

The European Commission adopted yesterday a Communication setting out a new framework of actions to protect and restore the world’s forests. The situation is more critical than previously thought and urgent actions are needed.

“Forests are the green lungs of our planet, and we must care for them in the same way we care for our own lungs,” said First Vice-President Frans Timmermans (23 July). “We will not meet our climate targets without protecting the world’s forests.”

He was joined in his concerns for the future of the world’s forests by other commissioners. Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, said that “The world’s forest cover continues to decrease at an alarming rate”.

But forests also represent a promising green economic sector, with the potential to create between 10 and 16 million decent jobs worldwide, he added.

The Commission writes that forests host 80% of biodiversity on land, support the livelihoods of around a quarter of the world’s population, and are vital to our efforts to fight climate change. That said, between 1990 and 2016 an area of 1.3 million square kilometres was lost, equivalent to approximately 800 football fields every hour.

The main drivers of this deforestation are demand for food, feed, biofuel, timber and other commodities. The Commission writes that greenhouse gas emissions linked to deforestation are the second biggest cause of climate change, accounting for nearly 12 % of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than the transport sector.

This underlines the double role of forests in tackling climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and providing products to replace emissions from fossil fuels and materials, as was discussed in an EU conference in Brussels last April.

“Forests are one of our key allies in fighting climate change,” said Miguel Arias Canete, Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, at the conference.

The Communication states that “halting deforestation and forest degradation is therefore crucial to fight climate change. Sustainably restoring degraded forests and creating new forests can be an effective complementary measure to the efforts to halt deforestation.”

In this the Communication concurs with Swedish forestry expert Peter Holmgren, a former Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who talked to The Brussels Times at the conference.

“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,” he said.

He also 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. Active forestry will increase the function of forests as carbon sinks.”

Asked to comment on the new Communication, Peter Holmgren replied that “It’s good that EU continues to invest in the world’s forests and that there are new signs of a positive agenda for active forestry and forest products that will contribute to sustainable development and become a big part of the climate solution”.

Compared to the conference, the Commissions seems now more concerned about the future of the forests and admits that its target from 2008 – to halt global forest cover loss by 2030 and to reduce gross tropical deforestation by 50 % by 2020 – are unlikely to be met.

Its set of proposed measures in the Communication will go some way in saving the forests, at least in Europe. For the Amazon rain forest, the measures might come too late because of a lack of political will among the countries concerned to cut deforestation.

Massive loss of the Amazon rain forest would spell catastrophe not just for the 30 million people living there but also for the world, according to a recent op-ed by Lisa Viscidi and Enrique Ortiz in The New York Times (22 July).

“Half of the world’s tropical forests are in the Amazon and yet deforestation produces 8 percent of net global emissions, more than the entire EU,” they wrote.

Proposed EU actions

The Commission proposes among others actions to reduce EU consumption and encourage the use of products from deforestation-free supply chains. These actions will be explored through the creation of a new Multi-Stakeholder Platform.

The Commission will also encourage stronger certification schemes for deforestation-free products and assess possible demand-side legislative measures and other incentives.

The Commission will work closely with partner countries to help them to reduce pressures on their forests, and will ensure that EU policies do not contribute to deforestation and forest degradation.

The Commission will also work through international fora to strengthen cooperation on actions and policies in this field.

The Commission will continue to ensure that trade agreements negotiated by the EU contribute to the responsible and sustainable management of global supply chains, and encourage trade of agricultural and forest-based products not causing deforestation or forest degradation.

It proposes the creation of an EU Observatory on Deforestation and Forest Degradation, to monitor and measure changes in the world’s forest cover and associated drivers.

The Commission will also focus on redirecting public and private finance to help to create incentives for sustainable forest management and sustainable forest-based value chains, and for conservation of existing and sustainable regeneration of additional forest cover.

The Brussels Times

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