Understanding the EU Forest Policy

by Robin Fontaine

What is the EU Forest Strategy [0]?

Adopted in July 2021, the EU forest strategy is the European Union’s plan to improve the quantity and quality of forests in its Member States. It is part of the “Fit for 55” package, the EU’s overall plan to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels [1]. The forest strategy aims to strengthen forest protection, restore biodiversity and carbon pits, and increase the resilience of natural habitats. Not only that, but it is also an ambitious plan to create jobs and improve health conditions, although it does have drawbacks [0].

Why is it important?

Countries need to adapt forest protection to the new climate reality. With harsher and drier summers, these habitats become far more susceptible to any kind of fire damage [2]. Just a spark can set ablaze thousands of hectares in the blink of an eye. The past couple of years were particularly bad in that regard; Australia, Siberia, California and the Mediterranean basin have had to face colossal fires, destroying biodiversity, carbon pits and their economy [3]. 

Forests hold an essential role in the economy, creating jobs, providing food and medicines and attracting tourists to natural reserves. However, their main quality resides in their capacity to capture carbon [3]. For the EU, revitalising forests is vital in making Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Furthermore, protecting forest ecosystems and biodiversity can also limit the interactions between humans and animals, thus reducing the risks of spreading diseases [4].

How does the EU want to protect forests? 

With countries worldwide pledging to plant new trees to prevent deforestation, sooner or later, the EU was bound to reveal their forestry ambition. By 2030, the EU is planning to plant three billion trees across its territory [5]. Yet, before jumping out of excitement, we need to keep in mind that planting trees is no bed of roses. With a changing climate and significant soil erosion, it is hard to determine what kind of trees forests and soils need to be more resilient. Therefore, preserving the existing forest areas must be the top priority for all Member States [6]. 

For the EU, forest protection must first be based on socio-economic benefits for citizens, companies and the Member States. The Commission recognises the multifunctional potential of forests outside of timber products such as cork, resin, medicinal and aromatic plants, fruits, berries or nuts. The annual value of non-wood production is estimated at EUR 19.5 billion per year and would increase in the coming years [0]. All these products play an essential role in local economies. Encouraging sustainable production will positively impact businesses and encourage communities to keep a “closer-to-nature” approach to forest management [7].

Additionally, with the Covid-19 crisis heavily impacting the global tourism sector and encouraging citizens to travel locally and outside of cities, the Commission saw an opportunity to support the development of ecotourism practices. By increasing collaboration between the tourism sector, forest owners and nature protection services, the Commission aims at developing cleaner forms of tourism [8]. Essentially, healthy for people, sustainable for forests and profitable for wallets.

For private owners, the strategy also plans to set up schemes to reward forest owners for biodiversity-friendly management practices – with a “closer-to-nature” voluntary certification scheme and guidelines and best practice exchange mechanisms. In addition, the EU quality label will benefit any production, even from private owners, and aims at encouraging sustainable management [7].

Pitfalls

It is regrettable to see that the strategy was weakened by lobbies and abandoned its proposal to define a series of indicators and thresholds for sustainable forest management [9]. Without good indicators, it will be difficult to define to what extent this policy has lasting impacts on forest expansion and biodiversity.

Furthermore, the Commission’s decision to keep biomass on the list of green renewable energy sources puts an additional strain on forest survival. In 2018, energy producers burning biomass in the EU received more than €10 billion in public subsidies [5]. Moreover, the demand for biomass keeps increasing, with Member States slowly turning their eyes on renewables. This means that the two strategies will have a hard time coexisting as more and more demand for wood will arise from EU countries [10].

Planting trees has a great potential for decarbonisation. Still, if these trees only survive a couple of years and are burnt for energy production, the absorbed CO2 is equivalent to the released CO2, negating the positive impact of planting trees [11]. Therefore, only long-lasting, sustainable forests have a chance to impact the climate positively and truly benefit biodiversity. 

What will happen next? 

At the end of 2021, the Commission will propose a legally binding instrument for ecosystem restoration, including forest ecosystems [0]. However, the document will probably not be welcomed by the forestry industry; it remains to be seen what concrete safeguards will be implemented to prevent intensified forest management and unsustainable practices.

References:

[0] EU Forest Strategy, URL: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:0d918e07-e610-11eb-a1a5-01aa75ed71a1.0001.02/DOC_1&format=PDF 
[1] Fit for 55: the pathway to salvation?, Clima Talk, URL: https://climatalk.org/2021/07/24/fit-for-55/ [last accessed 28/08/2021]
[2] Europe is burning: Four explanations, DW, URL: https://www.dw.com/en/europe-is-burning-four-explanations/a-58771341 [last accessed 28/08/2021]
[3] Forest fires in Europe, EEA, URL: https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/forest-fire-danger-4/assessment [last accessed 28/08/2021]
[4] EU must tackle deforestation to reduce the risk of pandemics, WWF, URL: https://www.wwf.eu/?364419/EU-must-tackle-deforestation-to-reduce-the-risk-of-pandemics [last accessed 27/08/2021]
[5] EU to plant three billion trees by 2030 under new forestry plan, EU Observer, URL: https://euobserver.com/climate/152473 [last accessed on 25/08/2021]
[6] Fit for 55/2030: MEPs underwhelmed by new EU Forest Strategy, The Parliament Magazine, URL: https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/news/article/fit-for-552030-meps-underwhelmed-by-new-eu-forest-strategy [last accessed 26/08/2021]
[7] EU Forest Strategy hampered by shortsighted interests, WWF, URL: https://www.wwf.eu/?4040816/EU-Forest-Strategy-hampered-by-shortsighted-interests [last accessed on 24/08/2021]
[8] New EU Forest Strategy for 2030, Europarc Federation, URL: https://www.europarc.org/news/2021/07/new-eu-forest-strategy-for-2030/ [last accessed 25/08/2021]
[9] Forest Strategy: Encouraging but too timid to face up to the challenge, Fern, URL: https://www.fern.org/publications-insight/forest-strategy-encouraging-but-too-timid-to-face-up-to-the-challenge-2373/ [last accessed 26/08/2021]
[10] Forest Sacrificed for EU Climate Policy, Fern, URL: https://www.fern.org/publications-insight/forests-sacrificed-for-eu-climate-policy-2366/ [last accessed 26/08/2021]
[11] Study: EU forests could absorb twice as much CO2, Greenpeace, URL: https://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/issues/nature-food/45332/study-eu-forests-could-absorb-twice-as-much-co2/ [last accessed 26/08/2021]
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