Forest utilisation

Briefing Last modified 19 Dec 2018
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Forest utilisation

Indicator

EU indicator
past trend

Selected objective
to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook of the EU meeting
the selected
objective by 2020

Forest: growing stock, increment and fellings

Yellow triangle: stable or unclear trend

Forest management is sustainable
— 7th EAP (focus solely on the use of forest resources)

 Green circle: it is likely that the objective will be met by 2020

Since 1990, EU forests overall have been felled at a lower rate than they have grown (at around 65  %), indicating sustainable use of forest resources. Despite a possible increase in the fellings of forests, the overall utilisation of forest resources is expected to remain sustainable up to 2020

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017


The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) includes an objective that forests be managed sustainably. One aspect of sustainability is the sustainable use of forest resources. The utilisation rate of forests describes how much of the forest has been harvested in relation to its increase in growing stock. More explicitly, this indicator expresses the ratio between the fellings of trees and the annual increment (in terms of forest volume on forest land available for wood supply). This ratio is commonly used as a proxy for the sustainable production and use of forest resources. Forest utilisation rates below 100 % indicate that the amount of timber taken out of the forest is in balance with what is left within the forest. Since 1990, the utilisation rate has remained around 65 % for the EU. It is likely that the utilisation rate will increase in the coming years because of increased harvesting of forests to meet increased demands for wood and because of the older age-class structure of forests in Europe. Nevertheless, it is not expected that the average utilisation rate of forests will increase above 100 %.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP sets out to ensure that ‘forest management is sustainable’ by 2020 (EU, 2013). Sustainable forest management means ‘using forests and forest land in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems’ (EC, 2013). Forests are essential natural resources that host a major part of the biodiversity in Europe. Forests also sequester and store carbon, filter water and provide recreational opportunities. This briefing focuses on one aspect of sustainable forest management, namely forest resources, in terms of how the forest utilisation rate affects the forest growing stock. This is used as a measure of the sustainability of the production and use of forest resources. The utilisation rate does not reflect the structures and processes necessary to maintain biodiversity and the various forest ecosystem services. 

Policy targets and progress

The environmental acquis does not include a specific target addressing sustainable forest management and the EU does not have a common forest policy. Forest issues are, nevertheless, embedded in almost all the nature and environmental policies of the EU. The EU Forest Strategy (EC, 2013) aims to coordinate these forest-related policies and to identify the key principles that are needed to ensure the sustainability and multifunctionality of forests in Europe. The strategy will be reviewed in 2018 in order to assess progress in its implementation.

Figure 1 shows that the forest utilisation rate (the ratio between the fellings of trees and their annual growth) for the EU has remained relatively constant – around 65 % - during the period examined (1990–2010). On average, the indicator stayed well below 100 % indicating a sustainable use of production and use of forest resources.[1] (Forest Europe, 2015; EEA, 2016).

Figure 1. Forest utilisation rate, EU

Note: The indicator covers the following 26 EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom.

The forest utilisation rate reflects the development of fellings as well as the development of annual increment. Both components of the indicator have increased over the period examined (Forest Europe, 2015; EEA, 2016).

The forest area in the EU has increased by 13.1 million hectares (ha) (8.9 %) since 1990. The growing stock has also increased by 7.4 million m3 (38 %) over the period examined (EEA, 2016). This increase in growing stock is not only linked to the increase in forest area but also to a number of other factors across the EU, in particular the high growing densities (m3/ha) in Central Europe, the increased growth rates, low levels of harvesting and increased focus on multifunctional use of forests (ecosystem services from forests) (EEA, 2016).

The expected trend to 2020 in the EU is an overall increased use of renewable materials and energy (EC, 2016). This could potentially lead to the use of more wood extracted from forests in the EU. There is nevertheless no evidence that this has happened in Europe so far (UNECE and FAO, 2011b). The forest area is expected to remain stable or slightly increase (UNECE and FAO, 2011b). This means that the growing stock is also expected to stay relatively stable overall, albeit with regional differences. By 2020, the expected trend may be a slight increase in the forest utilisation rate indicator, mainly because of increased fellings due to the maturing age structure of forests in Europe and the increased demand for wood for energy purposes. Overall, despite expected increased fellings of forests, the forest utilisation is expected to remain by 2020 to less than 100 %, so it is considered sustainable.

Country level information

A total of 26 EU countries reported on their forest utilisation rates during the 1990–2010 period (UNECE and FAO, 2011a and Forest Europe, 2015). The information underpinning this indicator has not been updated since 2010. In most countries that reported their forest utilisation rate, it remained below 100 % for the 1990–2010 period (Figure 2).

Forest utilisation rates vary widely across the countries and over time, from 20 % to more than 100 %. Some countries have experienced severe storms in recent decades, which caused large natural losses as well as reductions in increment. This partly explains some of the high utilisation rates of some countries.

It should be stressed that medium- or short-term exceedance of the forest utilisation rate does not necessarily mean that the use of forest resources is unsustainable, as it may reflect severe storms or the harvesting of mature forests, for example. From a sustainable forest management perspective, it is the long-term utilisation rate of forests that should stay below 100 %.

Figure 2. Forest utilisation rates, by country

Outlook beyond 2020

Overall, the expected outlook is a slightly increased forest utilisation rate; however, it is not expected to increase beyond 100 % in the long term (UNECE and FAO, 2011a). The outlook for the forest utilisation rate will depend on the demand for biomass as a renewable energy source (UNECE and FAO, 2011b). Biomass energy demand is expected to increase beyond 2020 as part of the EU’s efforts to transition to a low-carbon economy by 2050 (EC, 2011) and in line with the 7th EAP’s 2050 low-carbon economy vision.

An increased demand for biomass could increase the demand for wood and, hence, the utilisation rate (Berndes et al., 2016). However, some stakeholders consider that the use of wood directly from the forest for renewable energy may be neither carbon neutral nor an efficient use of this resource (Berndes et al., 2016) and this may run counter to a potential increase in demand for wood energy. It is also likely that wood use would be more efficient within a circular economy, in which nothing is wasted (EC, 2015). The EU’s ambition to move towards a circular economy may, therefore, lead to less forest fellings for timber and fuel (Berndes et al., 2016).

Climate change is also a factor that will affect the composition and distribution of current forest resources. Desertification is expected to spread in the south of Europe while forest cover is projected to increase with higher altitudes and latitudes (EEA, 2017). The resulting impact of climate change on forest utilisation rates has not been explored.

About the indicator

The forest utilisation rate is the ratio between the annual volume felled and the volume of annual growth in the stock of living trees. The ratio is used widely to assess the current and future availability of wood. A ratio below 100 % indicates that the growing stock, the timber reserve, is stable. In the long term, the volume felled must not exceed the volume of growth. However, the indicator needs cautious interpretation, as it depends directly on the volume of annual growth.

Average annual increment is calculated as the increase in growing stock volume over a year. An increase in growing stock results from maturing forests and an increase in forest area. The correct assessment of the volume of growing stock in Europe should be based on additional information on diameter and/or age class distributions, which are not available in a harmonised way at European level; for example in some countries the measurement of increment includes only growth on trees with a diameter larger than 10 centimeters. In addition, natural losses are excluded from the annual increment while the fellings of these natural losses are not. There is therefore a need for further development of this indicator.

Furthemore, the forest utilisation rate indicator only partly describes sustainable forest management (see the setting the scene section for a definition of sustainable forest management).

The indicator has no link to biodiversity as it does not indicate whether or not biodiversity and forest ecosystem services are protected or maintained. Aspects of forest biodiversity are included in the EU protected species briefing (AIRS_PO1.7, 2017), the EU protected habitats briefing (AIRS_PO1.8, 2017) and the Common birds and butterflies briefing (AIRS_PO1.6, 2017). The indicator indirectly relates to an increased stock of carbon in forest biomass, which is a service provided by forests that mitigates climate change.

Footnotes and references

[1] It should, however, be noted that although this rate indicates a sustainable production and use of forest resources, other aspects of forest’s status captured through other indicators give rise to concern. For example, climate change, pollution and encroaching human development are posing an increased threat to the long term stability and health of European forests and a high proportion of forest species and habitats’ assessments  (see AIRS PO1.7 and PO1.8, 2017) remain in an unfavourable conservation status.

 

Berndes, G., Abt, B., Asikainen, A., Dale, V., Egnell, G., Lindner, M., Marelli, L., Pingoud, K. and Yeh, S., 2016, Forest biomass, carbon neutrality and climate change mitigation, From Science to Policy 3, European Forest Institute, Joensuu Finland.

EC, 2011, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the regions ‘Energy Roadmap 2050’ (COM(2011) 885 final).

EC, 2013, Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘A new EU Forest Strategy: For forests and the forest-based sector’ (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:21b27c38-21fb-11e3-8d1c-01aa75ed71a1.0022.01/DOC_1&format=PDF) accessed on 4 May 2017.

EC, 2015, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘Closing the loop — An EU action plan for the circular economy’ (COM(2015) 614 final).

EC, 2016, EU Reference Scenario 2016: Energy, transport and GHG emissions, Trends to 2050, European Commission (https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/ref2016_report_final-web.pdf) accessed 17 May 2017.

EEA, 2016, European forest ecosystems – State and trends, EEA Report No 5/2016, European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/european-forest-ecosystems) accessed on 4 May 2017.

EEA, 2017, Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2016 – An indicator based report, EEA Report No 1/2017, European Environment Agency.

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’, Annex A, paragraph 28g (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

Forest Europe, 2015, State of Europe’s forests 2015, Ministerial Conference on Protection of Forests in Europe, FOREST EUROPE, Liaison Unit Madrid 312 p.

UNECE and FAO, 2011a, Forests in the ECE Region – Trends and Challenges in Achieving the Global Objectives on Forests, ECE/TIM/SP/37, United Nations Publications, New York and Geneva.

UNECE and FAO, 2011b, The European Forest Sector Outlook Study II (EFSOS II): 2010–2030, United Nations Publications, New York and Geneva.

 

AIRS briefings

AIRS_PO1.7, 2017, EU protected species

AIRS_PO1.8, 2017, EU protected habitats

AIRS_PO1.6, 2017, Common birds and butterflies

 

Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency

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