Future of European Forestry

The debate on forestry in Europe should be focused on how climate change is affecting the protection and management of forests, and on how EU policy should contribute more effectively to Member State initiatives.  These were two of the main points contained in a Green Paper on Forest Protection, adopted by the European Commission on 01 March 2010.
The Green Paper, part of a follow-up to the White Paper on Adapting to Climate Change adopted by the Commission in April 2009, also examines the main challenges facing European forests. The Commission sets out in the Paper options for an EU approach to the protection of forests and information about forest resources and their condition.

The State of Forests and Forest Functions

The Green Paper states that demand for land, timber products and energy has removed a large part of the Earth's original forest cover, which now makes up less than 30% of the Earth's land surface. Deforestation, mostly in developing countries, and related land use changes, have also contributed to increased global CO2 emissions. The Green Paper points out however that EU forests have continuously expanded for over sixty years, but are likely to come under pressure in the future.
The Green Paper explains that forests perform three essential functions:
• Protecting Ecosystems. Forests regulate freshwater supplies, protect soil against erosion and desertification, conserve biodiversity and also help protect human settlements and infrastructure from natural disasters.
• Regulating Climate. Forests act as sinks and sources of carbon regulators of local and regional weather and play a major role in the atmospheric circulation and the water cycle on land.
• Socio-economic. Forests provide jobs, income and raw materials for industry and for renewable energy.
The Commission wants the EU to aim at ensuring that forests continue to perform these three key functions, but notes that this will require balancing issues of competitiveness of forest based industries, and the organisation and motivation of forest owners. This says the Commission will require further efforts.

The Impact of Climate Change on Forests

Council Conclusions on the recent Commission White Paper: Adapting to climate change: Towards a European framework for action called for improvements in assessing the impacts of climate change and recognised the role of sustainable forest management in reducing the vulnerability of forests to climate change. The Commission is concerned that the rapid rate of human-induced climate change is now overcoming the natural ability of ecosystems to adapt. This will require increased human intervention and management to maintain forest coverage.
The Green Paper identifies the key threats to forests that are made worse by climate change:
• Droughts and heat-waves. Forests have declined over the last few decades in Mediterranean countries, made worse by insect pests and diseases and water scarcity. Climate change is forecast to cause more droughts.
• Temperature changes. Differences in the optimum temperature for different forest types will thus alter the suitability of whole regions for certain forest types.Destructive storms. Storms have occurred in Europe more frequently and have become the single most damaging factor to forests.
• Large fires.  Higher temperatures and more windy periods will raise the likelihood and severity of fires. Large fires, especially in Southern European, have caused considerable damage to forests in recent years.

Coordinating Existing Policies and Information

The importance of forest protection and management is recognised by the United Nations and referred to in international Conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and Convention to Combat Desertification. The Green Paper highlights the different EU and national legislative and non-legislative tools for the protection of forests including the EU Forestry Strategy, forest information systems and sustainable forestry management practices.
The Commission identifies sustainable forest management practices such as afforestation, fire prevention, proper forest planning and the prevention of introducing new pests and diseases as being essential for translating policy into practice.
The Commission also considers that harmonized reporting on a more complete set of indicators on forest use, forest functions and forest protection would help improve EU decision-making process. The Commission refers to the difficulties in the formulation of EU submissions to international processes, such as the Copenhagen climate conference as an example of where better information would have been useful.

Next Steps

A public consultation on the Green Paper will run from 1 March to 31 July 2010 on the Your Voice in Europe website. As part of the consultation, the Commission will organise a workshop and stakeholder meeting in Brussels as part of Green Week on 3 June. The Commission will publish the stakeholders' contributions on Internet and will provide its own feedback of the main outcomes of the consultation. The Green Paper will also be discussed at a forest protection conference being organised by the Spanish presidency in Valsain, Spain, on 6-7 April.