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The health of Europe’s forests and linked ecosystems are facing an increasing number of challenges, including deforestation due to urban development, pollution and impacts of climate change, all of which threaten forest resilience. Maintaining and ensuring their long-term health will require more sustainable management practices and proactive efforts to address the impacts of climate change according to two European Environment Agency (EEA) briefings published today, on 21 March – International Day of Forests.
Forest ecosystems play a vital role in supporting biodiversity and provide many benefits to our own well-being, helping to provide clean air and water, regulating weather extremes as well as providing recreation. However, forests are trying to cope with dramatic changes over past decades which have left them more vulnerable to disease, pests and biodiversity loss.
The two briefings: ‘European forest ecosystems: key allies in sustainable development‘ and ‘How are European forest ecosystems doing?’ give the latest state and trends on how European forests are doing. They also provide an explanation of EU efforts to improve forest ecosystem resilience.
Why are healthy forests important?
Forest restoration is critical for addressing Europe’s many environmental and social challenges. They also have an important role to play in Europe’s shift to sustainability. By restoring degraded forest ecosystems and promoting sustainable forest management practices, such as reduced-impact logging and the promotion of certified sustainable forest products, Europe can help to mitigate climate change, preserve biodiversity, and provide society with a range of essential ecosystem services to society, including carbon sequestration, water regulation and biodiversity conservation.
Approximately 10% of the EU’s annual greenhouse gas emissions are absorbed and stored in forest soils and biomass.
The current state of European forests is a mixed picture of improving and deteriorating conditions. While some indications such as structure, biomass volume, and productivity, suggest improving forest conditions, others, such as defoliation, tree canopy mortality, and deadwood, suggest a critical condition.
The increasing strain on forests is a cause for concern, especially in Central Europe where spruce forests are facing bark beetle outbreaks and forests in the Mediterranean region which are under stress due to drought, wildfires and land-use change.
Heatwaves and droughts weaken trees, making them more susceptible to insect pests and other disturbances like wind or fire. The frequency and intensity of these disturbances have also increased over the last 70 years.
Overall, land-use change remains the largest threat to forests, however, climate change is expected to overtake it and become the greatest threat to forest health over the coming years.
Growing value of forests
Forests are no longer seen only as an economic resource. The European Green Deal recognises the key role healthy forests play in helping us shift to a sustainable, low-carbon future.
Under the European Green Deal, the EU has committed to planting 3 billion additional trees by 2030 and increasing the resilience and biodiversity of existing forest ecosystems. The EU and Member States are implementing various policies and initiatives supporting forest restoration to achieve these goals. These include funding for reforestation and afforestation projects, support for sustainable forest management practices, and the development of green corridors and other landscape-scale approaches to forest restoration.
The EU has also set ambitious targets for forest restoration as part of broader efforts to address climate change and biodiversity loss. The EU Forest Strategy for 2030 and the proposed Nature Restoration Law aim to strengthen the biodiversity objectives and the protection, restoration and resilience of Europe’s forests. They are crucial to achieve a sustainable and climate-neutral economy by 2050.
The continued ability of Europe’s forests to provide its key ecosystem services depends on climate change and the actions by state- and non-state actors. Given the longevity of trees, these decisions will need a long-term perspective beyond 2050 and will need to encompass the role of forests, considering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on preserving biodiversity and climate action.