As the subject of one of the ‘flagship’ initiatives of the European Commission’s ‘Fit for 55/2030’ climate package, forests have been thrust into the political limelight.
The very basics of the proposed Forest Strategy, replacing the one adopted in 2013, are, of course, uncontroversial: we need forests - they are “our planet’s lungs”, as Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius put it in his press conference late last week, and we need to look after them.
But if the earlier EU strategy struggled to improve the state of Europe’s forests, will the new one fare any better? Environmental activists and several MEPs are sceptical.
Commenting on his website, German Greens/EFA deputy Martin Häusling says that the precondition of the beneficial effects of forests is that they are “stable, intact, and at least in a half-way natural state,” before adding, “We are often very far away from that.”
Criticising the European Commission’s proposal to plant three billion new trees by 2030 as half-baked, Häusling argues that, “Nobody knows which kind of trees would be appropriate in a warming climate. Instead of hectically resorting to expensive planting actions, it would, in many cases, be much better to give forests time for a natural change to adapt.”
The Commission itself admits in its factsheet about the three billion trees programme that it “should not be seen as an alternative to preserving existing trees, which remains the first priority.”
“What we see now is a clear risk that centralised EU systems will jeopardise long standing traditions and best practices developed by forest owners across Europe. My main concern is that the EU is undermining a sector which will be desperately needed in the climate transition” Swedish EPP MEP, Jessica Polfjärd
The most valuable type of forest - from an environmental point of view - is ancient woodland, but these only constitute three percent of Europe’s forests.
Banning the forestry industry from exploiting ancient woodland, as the Commission proposes, would undoubtedly help to preserve them but would amount to little more than a drop in the ocean - or rather the 43 percent of the EU’s surface which is covered with woodland.
Number two on the list of environmentally important forests are “highly biodiverse” forests. These are threatened by a drastically increased demand for woody biomass for energy production, with power stations formerly using coal now converting to biomass, particularly in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Woody biomass is still defined in EU law as a ‘zero carbon’ energy source on the grounds that emissions are accounted for in the so-called ‘Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry’ (LULUCF) sector. This has caused an increased reliance on forest biomass in achieving the EU’s renewable energy targets.
As the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) found in a recent study biomass burning has doubled since the early 2000s and has already surpassed projected levels. Today, half of all harvested wood in Europe is burnt for energy. The green forest lobby group Fern summed up the less than rosy picture in a reaction to the Fit for 2030 proposals, arguing, “The EU’s addiction to bioenergy has exerted huge additional pressure on forests, meaning EU forests absorb 15 percent less carbon dioxide since 2005.”
Environmental organisations are therefore calling on the EU to urgently remove forest biomass from the list of renewable energy sources in the eponymous directive, and even legislate to ban any woody biomass other than by-products such as saw mill residues.
EU Member States with a large forestry industry are, however, wary of too much regulation imposed by Brussels.
“The majority of Europe’s forests are managed, and with biodiversity in our forests continuously declining, we must no longer pretend that forest management has been sustainable until now. It is clear that voluntary measures have not worked” Finnish Greens/EFA MEP, Ville Niinistö
Swedish EPP MEP Jessica Polfjärd told The Parliament Magazine, “With the new climate package, we are starting to turn the ambitions of the Green Deal and our commitments under the climate law into action.”
“It is crucial that these frameworks strengthen the prospects for European forestry and sustainable forest management. It is actively managed forests with growing trees that absorb the most carbons, and wood based products replace fossil based ones. Our policies must reflect the climate contributions of sustainable forestry.
Polfjärd, a member of Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee added, “Unfortunately, that cannot be said of the Commission’s new forest strategy. Rather than encouraging sustainable forest management, the Commission’s proposed plans risk seriously undermining forestry’s climate contributions.”
The Commission’s proposal seems intended to give the EU more influence over forest policy, which is not provided for in TFEU. There is a reason for that: Member States themselves know best how to manage and sustain their national traditions in forestry.”
“What we see now is a clear risk that centralised EU systems will jeopardise long standing traditions and best practices developed by forest owners across Europe. My main concern is that the EU is undermining a sector which will be desperately needed in the climate transition.”
The Greens/EFA coordinator in the Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee, Ville Niinistö, by contrast, welcomed the Commission’s proposals as a step forward exactly because they envisage legally binding instruments.
“The majority of Europe’s forests are managed, and with biodiversity in our forests continuously declining, we must no longer pretend that forest management has been sustainable until now. It is clear that voluntary measures have not worked,” said Niinistö.
“To diversify their revenues we need to promote the uptake of schemes rewarding the preservation of ecosystem services, but also from non-wood products such as recreation and eco-tourism. We want to make sure they have better access to public funding to enhance the vitality of rural areas” EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius
At an exchange of views with EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson last week, the EPP Group’s Markus Pieper found the Forest Strategy lacking with regard to the forestry industry:
“What is your offer for the foresters and the farmers? The people whose livelihoods depend on the forest?” he asked Simson “There is too little of that in there.”
Responding, the Commissioner pointed to the proposals for a reformed LULUFC, where environmentally-friendly land use would be better rewarded.
Commissioner Sinkevičius, for his part, said at his press conference that, “I must repeat that this really is a strategy for people as well as nature, and that means foresters as well. We listened to them, we care about what they need, and we're doing all we can to protect their livelihoods.”
“I met many of them during my recent visits to Finland, Sweden and Germany and listened to their views and concerns.”
“To diversify their revenues we need to promote the uptake of schemes rewarding the preservation of ecosystem services, but also from non-wood products such as recreation and eco-tourism.”
“We want to make sure they have better access to public funding to enhance the vitality of rural areas.”
Parliament itself passed several own-initiative reports in October last year calling on the Commission to do more to promote sustainable forest management within the EU and to protect forests abroad by removing products that contribute to deforestation.
MEPs in both the ENVI and the ITRE committees will have the opportunity to probe the Commissioners in more detail about the Forest Strategy after the summer break.