Europe’s forestry policy is not yet out of the woods

Despite being one of the few places on Earth where forest cover is enlarging, the European Union continues to export deforestation abroad and often uses the wrong forestry practices at home. With a fresh European Parliament, now is the time to tackle this with the right investments.

Last week, Ethiopia reportedly planted a staggering 350 million trees in a single day. If confirmed, this would shatter the previous record, set by India, in 2017, of 66 million trees.

Regardless of whether any records were broken, this initiative was primarily rooted in an urgent environmental rationale, not to mention as an olive branch in a divided country.

In just one century, forest cover in Ethiopia has declined from 35% to under 4% of the country’s territory, which means that not enough rainwater is retained, intensifying droughts, and causing fertile soil to be washed away when it rains.

The Ethiopian government has pledged, through its Green Legacy initiative, to plant 4 billion (mostly indigenous) trees, of which 2.6 billion are already in the ground, it says. By so doing, Ethiopia hopes to combat some of the adverse effects not only of deforestation but also of climate change.

“Trees not only help mitigate climate change by absorbing the carbon dioxide in the air, but they also have huge benefits in combating desertification and land degradation, particularly in arid countries,” Dan Ridley-Ellis, the head of the Centre for Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University, was quoted as saying.

However, simply planting trees is not sufficient, as Ethiopia discovered in previous, smaller-scale efforts when the young saplings died during the dry season. The success of tree-planting initiatives depends on which trees are planted, where they are planted, their suitability, their diversity and the type of land on which they are planted.

“Tree planting is not enough on its own,” explains Kelsey Perlman, a forest and climate campaigner at Fern, a Brussels-based organisation dedicated to protecting forests and the rights of people depending on them, which is a member of the EEB network. “How it is done is as important as doing it.”

Turning over a new leaf

On Thursday 8 August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major new report on the climate crisis and land use which, among other things, paints an alarming picture of the extent of deforestation and land degradation.

“We need to see an urgent transformation in how we use land in the future,” said WWF’s Stephen Cornelius, the IPCC lead. “This includes the type of farming we do, our food system and diets, and the conservation of areas such as forests and other natural ecosystems.” 

Charting and gauging the implications of alternative land use options is vital if we are to make the best informed choices. This is precisely what the new EU-funded ‘Low-carbon society: an enhanced modelling tool for the transition to sustainability’ (LOCOMOTION) project plans to do, which continues and enlarges on the work of its predecessor, ‘Modelling the Renewable Energy Transition in Europe’ (MEDEAS).

Using so-called integrated assessment models (IAMs), which combine various socioeconomic and environmental models, LOCOMOTION, in which the EEB is involved, will develop a land-use submodel to track the trade-offs between different uses of land, including food production and biodiversity conservation.

While not as headline-grabbing as Ethiopia’s Green Legacy initiative, the European Commission launched, at the end of July, a new draft strategy which ambitiously seeks to protect and restore the world’s forests. First and foremost, the proposed action plan will aim to safeguard existing forests, especially primary forests, which are also known as old-growth forests, i.e. ancient forests with immense biodiversity that show few to no signs of human influence.

In addition, the strategy will seek to halt deforestation and forest degradation, as well as to encourage forest restoration. It will also endeavour to develop deforestation-free supply chains for products in the European Union.

This drive is the latest in a series of EU policy initiatives that have striven to halt deforestation since the 2003 Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) action plan against illegal logging.

Despite these efforts, deforestation continues apace at an alarming rate. An area the size of a football pitch is chopped down every second, while an area equivalent to the size of Greece is felled every year. In addition, more than half of the world’s stock of tropical rainforests has been destroyed since the 1950s.

European forests: boom or bust?

Europe is the only part of the world that is bucking the deforestation trend. Although historically Europe lost much of its forest cover, reaching as low as 10% of its land area in the 17th century, recent times have seen that trend reversed. Today, over 40% of the EU’s territory is made up of forests, with the largest proportions of forest cover lying in Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, Estonia and Latvia.

However, the headline statistics conceal a more complex reality. For example, while the EU protects forests at home, Europe effectively exports deforestation to other parts of the world by importing crops, meat and biofuels grown on cleared forests. Despite the EU’s pledge to do its bit to halt global deforestation, Europe’s demand for these products is projected to grow significantly by 2030, according to an internal study carried out by the European Commission.

Another problem is that although the area of forest in Europe has grown, not all forest cover is equal. “We do not have a deforestation problem in Europe, but we do have a bad forestation one,” notes Fern’s Kelsey Perlman. “Forest cover may have increased in Europe, but they’re in a bad shape. Monocultures of pine are not very valuable beyond the wood they provide. Biodiversity levels are at a historically low level.”

Clear-cut problems

Clearcutting is when all or most of the trees in an entire area of a forest are felled. While this makes business sense, due to the economies of scale afforded by modern machinery, the environmental case is far from clear-cut.

This type of wood harvesting destroys habitats, devastates local ecosystems, damages the water cycle and affects soil quality. This practice is particularly problematic when carried out in primary forests or in protected Natura 2000 sites, such as has occurred in Lithuania.

“Selective cutting and carefully choosing the correct trees to fell is a better and far more sustainable option than clearcutting,” explains Perlman. In addition to being ecologically sounder, this approach has the bonus of harvesting higher quality wood, which can be sold at a premium.

Shaking the money tree

Under the Natura 2000 umbrella, funding is available for forest preservation and protection at both the national and European levels, through the EU’s Structural Funds, the Rural Development Fund, Maritime Fisheries Fund and other financial instruments.

However, a substantial amount of these funds went unspent, according to an in-house analysis carried out by Fern. “Effective utilisation of these funds requires better national frameworks,” notes Perlman.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which was originally conceived as a food security instrument, now also funds conservation and custodianship. In terms of forests, the CAP finances such activities as afforestation, mixed agroforestry systems, conserving the genetic diversity of forests, and enhancing the climate resilience and environmental value of forest ecosystems. This kind of funding will continue into the next CAP (2021-2027).

“These interventions have been shown to be effective and good value for money, yet the share of the CAP budget dedicated to rural development, which funds these measures, has been shrinking and is set to be cut by 28% over the next funding period,” observes Célia Nyssens, agriculture policy officer at the EEB.

These cuts come at a time when European forests and nature need considerably greater investment. “The CAP urgently needs a wholescale transformation to end the harmful environmental impacts of agriculture and land management and promote the stewardship of forests and sustainable agriculture, but so far the political will has been lacking,” Nyssens concludes.