Europe is a vastly heterogeneous continent. When traveling through the Member States, one is taken aback by the diversity and the beauty of its nature. In an EU spanning from the south of Italy to the north of Sweden, that is to be expected.
Yet the differences in nature are not purely aesthetic, they also provide us with opportunities, if we use them wisely. For example, some countries largely consist of forests, the result of well-considered policy and actions. Consequently, it is not a windfall gain in need of protection.
For Member States such as my own, generations of forest owners have contributed to these vast tree-covered areas by responsibly managing their lands. Forestry and forests are more than part of our cultural heritage; I would almost go as far as claiming that they are part of our DNA.
I was delighted to become rapporteur for the ENVI Committee on an issue so close to my constituents and me. During the long hard negotiations on the European Parliament’s initiative report on the upcoming forest strategy, due to be presented by the Commission early next year, one of my main messages was that we need an ambitious strategy that deals with how forestry can best contribute to our climate goals.
“The differences in nature are not purely aesthetic, they also provide us with opportunities, if we use them wisely”
Simultaneously, it should also counter the threats that Member States cannot and should not be left to face by themselves. I will leave it up to my colleagues in these negotiations to pass the verdict on whether I was successful. However, from the look of the final report, I can make an initial assessment of our main messages as well as the major victories for European forests.
First, that we as a Parliament acknowledge that the upcoming strategy should respect Member State competences while noting that the EU has some important competences in protecting nature too. Going back to my introduction, European countries certainly differ in nature and conservation. Some have many forests, some not.
Like it or not, that is where we stand. Therefore, politicians and civil servants in Member States with more forests than others will have better knowledge and experience on how to regulate them. A far-reaching European regime would be difficult, if not impossible, to formulate in a way that takes hundreds of years of societal, economic and environmental practices into account.
That said, the EU can and should play a vital role. By developing a comprehensive and consistent strategy, it can enhance and promote the role of both forests and the forest sector in achieving common policy objectives. First, the main challenge of our generation: climate change. Some 13 percent of EU carbon emissions are absorbed and stored in Europe’s forests.
However, that does not mean that unmanaged forests are the best tool to fight climate change - quite the contrary. Research tells us that sustainably managed forests absorb more CO2 than unmanaged forests. Clearly, our concern should be to promote sustainable management, rather than indiscriminately fighting forest management altogether.
In the fight against climate change, we also have to produce more environmentally friendly goods. A European forest strategy that acknowledges substituting fossil-based materials with bio-based products could prove to be vital in reaching climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest. The ambition to substitute certain products does not happen overnight; it takes investment in research and development.
“Forestry and forests are more than part of our cultural heritage; I would almost go as far as claiming that they are part of our DNA”
Technology has surely developed since the forest strategy was introduced in 2013 - imagine the progress we could achieve under the next one. That will not happen by itself, though. Supporting innovation in bio-based products can not only help the environment but also contribute to both job creation and economic growth.
Sustainable forest management is also about taking care of the forests for future generations. Although owners are responsible, farsighted people, they often face challenges beyond their control. The EU should undoubtedly help in countering these current and future challenges, as they often are transboundary, such as invasive alien species, pests and diseases.
This dictates that a strong and committed European response is required, as Member States cannot be expected to solve them alone. I believe all of us in the European Parliament love Europe. We might surely display our affection differently, but few of us, if any, wish we had been born in a different continent.
Regardless of political group, we can all agree on the fact that European nature is truly remarkable. In some parts, that is due to generations of forest owners taking good care of their lands, in order to pass it onto their children. That is something we as politicians should encourage and promote, rather than restricting their opportunities to do so. Done correctly, the upcoming Forest Strategy will ensure that Europe’s forests are here long after us.