Sustainable management is the key to healthy forests in Europe

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Article Published 15 Mar 2016 Last modified 11 May 2021
4 min read
Photo: © Juan Carlos Farias Pardo, Environment & Me /EEA
Forests in Europe provide us essential services: clean air, clean water, natural carbon storage, timber, food and other products. They are home to many species and habitats. We talked about the challenges Europe’s forests face with Annemarie Bastrup-Birk, forest and environment expert at the European Environment Agency.

Why are forests so important for the health of our environment?

Forests provide many vital ecosystem services for the environment and climate. For example, they help regulate our climate and sustain watersheds, providing us clean water. They help clean the air we breathe. Growth in forest stock often helps capture large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They also help preserve and protect biodiversity as many species live and depend on forests. They are an important economic resource as well, not only for the timber production but also other resources used for medicines and other products. Forests also play other important roles for human wellbeing and recreation.

In Europe, the total area covered by forests is actually increasing, mainly due to afforestation policies and conversion of abandoned farm land into forests. Forests cover more than 40% of the total land surface in the 33 member countries and six cooperating countries of the European Environment Agency.

Nevertheless, the health of forests is a global issue and the total forest area is decreasing in the world. And Europeans do have an impact on global deforestation. We import agricultural products as well as wood products which are the main causes of global deforestation affecting mainly in the tropical or boreal forests.

The total area covered by forests is not the only indicator that should be taken into account.

What key challenges do forests in Europe face?

Forests in Europe face many challenges, including the loss of habitats and higher risks linked to invasive species, pollution and climate change. Increasing use by humans for various activities, construction of transport networks and urban sprawl are also exerting pressure on forests. Fragmentation, when large forests end up divided into many smaller patches situated in between farm land or urban development, clearly affects forests and forest-dependent species.

These issues are analysed in our upcoming report on the state and trends of Europe’s forest ecosystems, which will be published later this month. The report confirms that we need to protect our forests and ensure sustainable management of forest ecosystems, not only when it comes to timber production, but also when using our forests for other vital ecosystem services essential for our well-being.

Why are sustaining and protecting our forests so important?

Historically, forests are the natural habitat for large parts of Europe and they have been providing essential services for our environment and wellbeing. They are very rich in terms of biodiversity and are essential for our efforts in sustaining natural habitats in Europe.

In recent years, there has been growing awareness of their importance in various policy discussions, especially now with the Paris COP 21 agreement where forests were an integral part of climate talks. When it comes to carbon sequestration and mitigating climate change, forests are perhaps the only natural instrument we can manage. We can grow them and cut them down. We don’t have such control with oceans, for example.

To what extent does climate change threaten our forests?

We know that they will be impacted, but we do not know how and to what extent exactly. Climate change can have both positive and negative effects. If you have a warmer climate, tree growth is likely to increase and might be a positive outcome in terms of timber production. It can also affect the tree line, which can move more with altitude and to the north. At the same time, forests can face an increased number of threats, in terms of pathogens, diseases, pests and more invasive species.

For example, in response to warmer and drier spring and summer periods, the European spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) has a shorter development period and is able to reproduce multiple times during the season, increasing their numbers.

Changes in climate conditions can make forests more vulnerable amid more extreme weather. Changes to rain patterns (wetter or drier) could result in existing tree species being replaced by other species that are better able to survive and thrive in the new climate conditions.

Although most forest fires in Europe are caused by people, extreme droughts and dry conditions can increase the risk of forest fire, especially in southern Europe. And such fires can be devastating for forest ecosystems.

What are the EU and the EEA doing to address these challenges?

Management of forests remains a national responsibility. But a European process is underway to set certain criteria and guidelines on how best to take care of forests in Europe. Although there is no EU forest policy, the European Union (EU) wants to support and implement a sustainable management of forests in Europe and to protect and preserve the multiple functions of forests. To this end, the EU adopted a new Forest Strategy which came out in September 2013. The strategy tries to promote better coordination between all the stakeholders involved.

The Agency produces assessments to contribute to the knowledge base on Europe’s forests and to raise awareness about the challenges forests face, while identifying future prospects. To this end, we collaborate closely with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and Eurostat. We also work with Copernicus the European Earth Observation Programme, which maps forests and forest types as part of its land monitoring service. In addition, we coordinate with UN agencies and other international organisations to share data. Through our extensive environmental expertise and partners, we are able to link forests to other environmental issues, such as climate, agriculture, transport and biodiversity, and therefore formulate a better and comprehensive understanding of the pressures on forest ecosystems.

Annemarie Bastrup-Birk

Annemarie Bastrup-Birk

Interview published in the EEA Newsletter issue 1/2016, dated March 2016


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