Indicator Assessment

Forest composition and distribution

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-186-en
  Also known as: CLIM 034
Created 15 Dec 2016 Published 20 Dec 2016 Last modified 25 Oct 2017
17 min read
  • Range shifts in forest tree species due to climate change have been observed towards higher altitudes and latitudes. These changes considerably affect the forest structure and the functioning of forest ecosystems and their services.
  • Future climate change and increasing CO2 concentrations are expected to affect site suitability, productivity, species composition and biodiversity. In general, forest growth is projected to increase in northern Europe and to decrease in southern Europe, but with substantial regional variation. Cold-adapted coniferous tree species are projected to lose large fractions of their ranges to more drought-adapted broadleaf species.
  • The projected changes will have an impact on the goods and services that forests provide. For example, the value of forest land in Europe is projected to decrease between 14 and 50 % during the 21st century.

Projected changes in climatic suitability for broadleaf and needleleaf trees

Note: The two panels indicate to what degree broadleaf (left panel) and needleleaf (right panel) tree species are expected to increase (blue) or decrease (brown) in numbers. The results represent species distribution modelling, using climate projections from six regional climate models using the A1B scenario of future emissions.

Past trends

Trees are slow-migrating species. Range expansion occurs primarily into newly suitable habitats at their (generally northern) latitudinal or (upper) altitudinal limit. Range contraction occurs primarily at the rear edge, which is often the most southern or the lowest lying part of their distribution range. These areas can become unsuitable for tree species as a result of direct effects (e.g. drought) or indirect effects (e.g. drought-induced pests or diseases) of climate change. In France, the altitudinal distribution of 171 forest plant species along the elevation range 0–2 600 m was studied using a 101-year data record starting in 1905. Climate warming has resulted in a significant upwards shift in species optimum elevation averaging 29 m per decade, but with a wide range from + 238 to –171 m per decade [i]. Land-use changes are the most likely explanation of the observed significant downwards shifts in some regions [ii]. In the Montseny mountain range in north-east Spain, the altitude range of beech extended by about 70 m upwards according to different data sources from the 1940s to 2001 [iii]. A study comparing data from the 1990s with data from the 2000s in the Spanish Pyrenees and the Iberian Peninsula found an average optimum elevation shift of 31 m upwards per decade for five tree species, ranging between −34 and +181 m per decade [iv]. Nevertheless, not all studies found clear climate signals, partly because tree species can experience time lags in their migration response to climate change [v].

In addition to range shifts, changes in forest composition have been observed in the past. In a Swedish spruce–beech forest, a long-term study covering the period since 1894 showed that spruce has been losing its competitive advantage over beech since 1960 [vi]. In north-east Spain, beech forests and heather heathlands have been replaced by holm oak forest at medium altitudes (800–1 400 m), mainly as a result of the combination of warming temperatures and land-use change [vii]. Field-based observations from a forest inventory providing presence and absence information from 1880 to 2010 for a Mediterranean holm oak species (Quercus ilex) have been used to investigate the migration speed in the past. In four studied forests in France along the Atlantic coast, Quercus ilex has colonised a substantial amount of new space, but the northwards movement occurred at an unexpected low maximum rate of 22 to 57 m/year across the four forests [viii].

Extreme climate and weather events such as droughts can have negative effects on food webs and regional tree dieback For the Iberian Peninsula, the defoliation of trees due to a water deficit rose significantly between 1987 and 2007 in all 16 examined tree species. Defoliation doubled on average, and this trend was paralleled by significant increases in tree mortality rates in drier areas [ix]. Furthermore, droughts can lead to secondary impacts on forests through pests and pathogens [x].


Climate change is expected to strongly affect the biological and economic viability of different tree species in Europe, as well as competition between tree species. A study in Finland showed that climate change may lead to a local reduction of forest growth but total forest growth nationwide may increase by 44 % during the 21st century [xi]. Observations and simulations of tree mitigation rates suggest that only fast-growing, early successional tree species will be able to track climate change [xii]. Recent studies that simulated forest composition and range shifts in Europe and at the global level using different climate and land-use scenarios suggest upwards shifts in the tree line and northwards migration of boreal forests [xiii]. Broadleaf tree cover in Europe is projected to increase during the 21st century under all climate scenarios, whereas needleleaf tree cover decreases, despite a northward extension in northern Europe (Figure 1).

A large-scale integrated project on adaptive forest management (MOTIVE) applied an array of models (empirical as well as hybrid and process-based) in the analysis of the impacts of climate change on 38 European tree species. The results show that more drought-tolerant species such as sessile oak (Quercus petraea), pubescent oak (Quercus pubescens) and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) can be expected to become more abundant at lower altitudes throughout Europe, while other species such as beech (Fagus sylvatica), sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), lime (Tilia), elm (Ulmus) or silver fir (Abies alba) are likely to see further reductions in their ranges. Species from (sub-)Mediterranean regions such as holm oak (Quercus ilex), hop hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia) and cork oak (Quercus suber) are expected to extend their ranges to the north. Different pine species are also expected to extend their ranges quite considerably. Some species, such as Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), might face indirect threats from insects and other pest outbreaks, rather than direct threats from climate change alone. In summary, the projected range shifts will affect the forest structure quite considerably. Such changes will also affect the functioning of forest ecosystems and the services these ecosystems could provide [xiv].

Another modelling study assessed the impacts of projected climate change on forest composition across Europe and the economic consequences in terms of annual productivity and land value [xv]. It projected that the major commercial tree species in Europe, Norway spruce, will shifts northwards and to higher altitudes. It will lose large parts of its present range in central, eastern and western Europe under all scenarios (SRES A1B, A1FI and B2). Depending on the emissions scenario and climate model, between 21 and 60 % (mean: 34 %) of European forest lands were projected to be suitable only for a forest type of Mediterranean oak, with low economic returns by 2100, compared with 11 % in the baseline period 1961–1990. As a result of the decline of economically valuable species, the value of forest land in Europe is projected to decrease between 14 and 50 % (mean: 28 % for an interest rate of 2 %) by 2100. The economic loss in land estimation value is estimated at several hundred billion euros.


[i] J. Lenoir et al., ‘A Significant Upward Shift in Plant Species Optimum Elevation during the 20th Century’,Science 320, no. 5884 (2008): 1768, doi:10.1126/science.1156831.

[ii] J. Lenoir et al., ‘Going against the Flow: Potential Mechanisms for Unexpected Downslope Range Shifts in a Warming Climate’,Ecography 33, no. 2 (2010): 295–303, doi:10.1111/j.1600-0587.2010.06279.x.

[iii] Josep Penuelas and Marti Boada, ‘A Global Change-Induced Biome Shift in the Montseny Mountains (NE Spain)’,Global Change Biology 9, no. 2 (February 2003): 131–40, doi:10.1046/j.1365-2486.2003.00566.x.

[iv] Morgane Urli et al., ‘Inferring Shifts in Tree Species Distribution Using Asymmetric Distribution Curves: A Case Study in the Iberian Mountains’,Journal of Vegetation Science 25, no. 1 (January 2014): 147–59, doi:10.1111/jvs.12079.

[v] Sonia G. Rabasa et al., ‘Disparity in Elevational Shifts of European Trees in Response to Recent Climate Warming’,Global Change Biology 19, no. 8 (August 2013): 2490–99, doi:10.1111/gcb.12220; Katherine M. Renwick and Monique E. Rocca, ‘Temporal Context Affects the Observed Rate of Climate-Driven Range Shifts in Tree Species: Importance of Temporal Context in Tree Range Shifts’,Global Ecology and Biogeography 24, no. 1 (January 2015): 44–51, doi:10.1111/geb.12240.

[vi] Andreas Bolte et al., ‘Climate Change Impacts on Stand Structure and Competitive Interactions in a Southern Swedish Spruce–beech Forest’,European Journal of Forest Research 129, no. 3 (May 2010): 261–76, doi:10.1007/s10342-009-0323-1.

[vii] Penuelas and Boada, ‘A Global Change-Induced Biome Shift in the Montseny Mountains (NE Spain)’.

[viii] Sylvain Delzon et al., ‘Field Evidence of Colonisation by Holm Oak, at the Northern Margin of Its Distribution Range, during the Anthropocene Period’,PLOS ONE 8, no. 11 (18 November 2013): e80443, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080443.

[ix] Jofre Carnicer et al., ‘Widespread Crown Condition Decline, Food Web Disruption, and Amplified Tree Mortality with Increased Climate Change-Type Drought’,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 4 (25 January 2011): 1474–78, doi:10.1073/pnas.1010070108.

[x] Hervé Jactel et al., ‘Drought Effects on Damage by Forest Insects and Pathogens: A Meta-Analysis’,Global Change Biology 18, no. 1 (January 2012): 267–76, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2011.02512.x.

[xi] Seppo Kellomäki et al., ‘Sensitivity of Managed Boreal Forests in Finland to Climate Change, with Implications for Adaptive Management’,Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363, no. 1501 (12 July 2008): 2341, doi:10.1098/rstb.2007.2204.

[xii] Delzon et al., ‘Field Evidence of Colonisation by Holm Oak, at the Northern Margin of Its Distribution Range, during the Anthropocene Period’; J. Fitzgerald and M. Lindner, ‘Adapting to Climate Change in European Forests — Results of the MOTIVE Project’ (Sofia: Pensoft Publishers, 2013),

[xiii] Marcus Lindner et al., ‘Climate Change and European Forests: What Do We Know, What Are the Uncertainties, and What Are the Implications for Forest Management?’,Journal of Environmental Management 146 (15 December 2014): 69–83, doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2014.07.030; R. A. Betts et al., ‘Climate and Land Use Change Impacts on Global Terrestrial Ecosystems and River Flows in the HadGEM2-ES Earth System Model Using the Representative Concentration Pathways’,Biogeosciences 12, no. 5 (3 March 2015): 1317–38, doi:10.5194/bg-12-1317-2015.

[xiv] Fitzgerald and Lindner, ‘Adapting to Climate Change in European Forests — Results of the MOTIVE Project’.

[xv] Marc Hanewinkel et al., ‘Climate Change May Cause Severe Loss in the Economic Value of European Forest Land’,Nature Climate Change 3, no. 3 (23 September 2012): 203–7, doi:10.1038/nclimate1687.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

  • Projected change in climatic suitability for broadleaf and needleleaf trees


  • Change in climatic suitability (unitless)


Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013, the European Commission (EC) presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package. This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU Adaptation Strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe.
One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which will be achieved by bridging the knowledge gap and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT has been developed jointly by the EC and the EEA to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies.
Further objectives include Promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies and Promoting action by Member States. Most EU Member States have already adopted national adaptation strategies and many have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation. The EC also supports adaptation in cities through the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy initiative.
In September 2016, the EC presented an indicative roadmap for the evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy by 2018.
In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7th EU Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources.’ Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.


No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    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’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • A new EU Forest Strategy
    A new EU Forest Strategy: for forests and the forest-based sector.  Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘A new EU Forest Strategy: for forests and the forest-based sector’, COM(2013) 659 final. The EU needs a policy framework that coordinates and ensures coherence of forest-related policies and allows synergies with other sectors that influence forest management. The new forest strategy is a key reference in forest-related policy development. EU forests and forest sector need to be positioned in a way that ensures their contribution to the EU’s objectives and targets. This implies to: • Ensure that the multifunctional potential of EU forests is managed in a sustainable and balanced way, enabling our forests’ vital ecosystem services to function correctly. • Satisfy the growing demand for raw material for existing and new products (e.g. green chemicals or textile fibres) and for renewable energy. This demand is an opportunity to diversify markets, but poses a significant challenge for sustainable management and for balancing demands. Demand for new uses in the bioeconomy and in bioenergy should be coordinated with traditional demands, and respect sustainable boundaries. • Respond to the challenges and opportunities that forest-based industries face in resource and energy efficiency, raw materials, logistics, structural adaptation, innovation, education, training and skills, international competition, climate policy beyond 2020 and information and communication, to stimulate growth. • Protect forests and biodiversity from the significant effects of storms and fires, increasingly scarce water resources, and pests. These threats do not respect national borders and are exacerbated by climate change. • Acknowledge that the EU does not only rely on its own production, and that its consumption has implications for forests worldwide. • Develop an adequate information system to follow-up on all of the above.
  • Climate-ADAPT: Adaptation in EU policy sectors
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: Country profiles
    Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
  • DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
    Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives in the future. This web portal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
  • EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In April 2013, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it enhances the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.


Methodology for indicator calculation

The projected change in climatic suitability for broadleaf and needleleaf trees has been simulated using species distribution models (or climate envelope models) for major tree species in Europe in order to assess what the consequences of  climate  change  on  the  habitat  suitability  of  these  tree  species  might  be.

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable

Methodology references



Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable

Data sets uncertainty

Species distribution models (also known as habitat models, niche models or climate envelope models) suffer from a variety of limitations because species are currently not in equilibrium with climate, and because species dispersal and biotic interactions are largely ignore. Furthermore, climate change projections for Europe include climate conditions for which no analogue climate was available for the model calibration. Some models still do not include such climates, which may lead to misinterpretations of projected changes.

When documenting and modelling changes in soil, biodiversity and forest indicators, it is not always feasible to track long-term changes (signal) given the significant short-term variations (noise) that may occur (e.g. seasonal variations of soil organic carbon as a result of land management). Therefore, detected changes cannot always be causally attributed to climate change. Human activity, such as land use and management, can be more important for terrestrial ecosystem components than climate change, both for explaining past trends and for future projections.

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 034
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled every 4 years
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage