European Forests, Biomass and Broader Ecosystem Services

Speech Published 11 Apr 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Speech by Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, European Environment Agency at the Informal Meeting of Environment Ministers, Brdo, Slovenia, 11-13 April 2008

The state of European forests …

Mr President, Ministers, distinguished guests,

Europeans have long understood that our forests provide society with a multitude of ecological, social and economic functions and benefits:

  • Forest ecosystems host much of the biological diversity in Europe.
  • Forests provide fuel, fibre including building materials, cork and paper, and a wide range of food items such as berries, nuts and mushrooms;
  • They regulate water flow and provide protection from soil erosion and avalanches;
  • They support people in their livelihoods, offer a place for recreation, and often have a special cultural-historical value.

Forests will be a central issue in the discussions at the 9th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biodiversity in Bonn next month. At the meeting, the European Environment Agency will present its assessment report on ‘European forests – ecosystem conditions and sustainable use’ along with inputs into the discussions on valuation and costs of biodiversity loss. The assessment report builds on inputs from Member State officials plus the data provided for the Ministerial Conference for the Protection of Forests in Europe 2007 and focuses on ecosystem conditions and biodiversity. Other EEA member countries contributed through a review process.

Today, I would like to take this opportunity to indicate some of the key findings.

As you see from the map, European forests are an important part of Europe’s landscape:

  • Forests are distributed over a range of bio-geographic regions; they comprise a wide range of ecological conditions and today cover 37 % of the land area of the countries of the EU-27. This corresponds to approximately 156 million hectares, the equivalent size of Germany, Spain and France combined.
  • Semi-natural forest – forest made up of native species including areas under intensive management – dominate in Europe. This is the case for Slovenia. Undisturbed forests are mainly found in Bulgaria, Finland, Sweden and Spain. Forest plantations – monocultures often with non-native tree species - comprise a relatively minor part of the overall forest area.
  • Deforestation is not a major issue in Europe. On the contrary, forest area increased in most EU Member States between 1990-2005; in the EU27 it amounts to approximately 750 000 ha/year, approximately 0.5 % per year.
  • But our analysis shows that forests are suffering from fragmentation into smaller ‘patches’. Such changes often go unnoticed, but they can have very significant impacts. For example, the beech forests of southern Germany are really a mosaic of beech trees, cherry trees and other species, that rely on a succession cycle stretching over hundreds of hectares, that can take three to five hundred year to complete. Losing any part of the cycle through fragmentation into smaller patches, means that the mosaic cannot be completed and animal and plant species are lost or put at risk. Across Europe, 20-30% of forest cover has been found to be on the threshold for maintaining several forest bird and mammal species.

To provide a framework for assessment of forest ecosystem conditions across Europe, the EEA has derived a European forest classification; ‘The European Forest Types’ made up of 14 main forest categories.

Turning to the link with nature protection legislation, the Convention on Biodiversity has identified a quantitative target that ‘at least 10% of each of the world’s forest types are effectively conserved’.

Presently the information at our disposal is not precise enough to assess without doubt the extent to which this target is being met in Europe. As much as 13% of the forest area of the 27 EU member states is designated as ‘Special Protection Areas’ under the EU Habitats Directive. However the designation of an area does not exclude normal forestry or other interventions, as long as a ‘favourable conservation status’ of the listed habitat types is maintained. The listing of forest habitats under Article 17 reporting of the EU Habitats Directive will enable the EEA to undertake a more in-depth analysis of the conservation status of forest habitats in the near future.

Challenges ahead – the case of bio-energy and forest biodiversity

Let me now turn to one of the challenges ahead, notably the issue of bio-energy.

There has already been an increased demand on forests resources for bio-energy. The legitimate need to contribute to Europe´s energy supply does not necessarily conflict with biodiversity and ecosystem conditions, but the harvesting and systems for recycling ash need to be designed to minimise negative effects on forest biological diversity.

The map presented in the slide identifies the suitability for increased biomass harvest taking into account the site nutrient conditions. Several generations of increased harvest of forest biomass will have to be compensated either by returning the ash or by fertilizing to maintain the site productivity.

An increased demand for forest biomass may also increase the utilisation of European forests – presently only around two thirds of the increment is harvested according to Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe. This may potentially conflict with biodiversity, in particular if the harvesting of deadwood takes place. Preservation of biodiversity actually requires an increase in the amount of deadwood in most types of European forest. If forest production is increased through, for example, increased use of alien tree species and ‘improved’ genetic plant material this must of course be combined with a risk and impact assessment on increased biodiversity loss.

Looking more broadly - Forest ecosystem services and human well-being

In this last section, I would like to return to the discussions to be held in Bonn next month and bring in the broader perspective of forest ecosystem services. Most in this room will be familiar with the G8+5 Potsdam initiative to produce an assessment around the economics of biodiversity and ecosystem services in a way not dissimilar to that produced by Stern et al in 2006 for climate change. Indeed Minister Gabriel and Commissioner Dimas are sponsors of the process and I should say that your initiative has excited much interest and much needed impetus in the biodiversity science community. Many activities have been spawned and I would like to focus in on two being coordinated by EEA and most relevant to our discussions today.

The first concerns the study we are managing on the ‘Benefits and costs of protecting forest biodiversity’. This global study is still in progress. It looks at a wide range of case study material but already some interesting messages are emerging that could support policy considerations.

The demands on European forests can be expected to develop beyond simply biomass towards multi-functionality in coming years. In this context, production of wood and other traditional forest resources will need to be balanced against biodiversity considerations, as well as other services from the forest ecosystems, such as cultural and recreational services, carbon sequestration, flood protection, and how in the case of the latter two these can in turn insure against the impacts expected from climate change. Pressures will increase from all sides, if only from the perspective of land acquisition for other purposes.

However, the preliminary analysis of the benefits and costs of protecting biodiversity of forests suggests that the high values of forests for carbon sequestration, and for recreation and tourism, means that efforts to develop these markets could potentially result in high enough levels of income from maintaining forests, and that the benefits of doing so would outweigh income from deforestation or fragmentation.

The various elements of the value calculations vary widely even across Europe, but they give useful insights into what is at stake.  

For example, non-timber forest products in Mediterranean countries have a value of around €25/ha/yr, compared to €6-10/ha/yr in Sweden. The recreational value of forests per hectare per year in Italy is €49-56, in Ireland €158, in Scandinavia just €9-13 and in England €1,892. In Finland, watershed protection to protect old growth is valued at €5,275/ha/yr. Carbon sequestration in Ireland is valued per hectare per year at €56, in Sweden €6-10 and in the UK €177-261. Non-use values for forests in the UK are valued at €564-1,536 compared to the USA where they contribute €787 towards GDP, and where value is directly affected by accessibility and the size of the local population.

Thus focusing policy on non-use values of forest biodiversity could bring high benefits, but the “public good” nature of these benefits means that without direct intervention they are unlikely to be accounted for.

Non-use values are most likely to be high where opportunity costs are low, so the required finance for protection need not be high. Existing market and policy frameworks mean that the benefits of forests for recreation and for carbon sequestration are now increasingly accounted for in land use decisions. Further development of these mechanisms will have significant potential for conservation of forest land, particularly if the links with biodiversity are strengthened.

So, although other direct use values of forests, such as non-timber product harvests and bio-prospecting may be important for conservation in some situations, they will generally not provide sufficient benefits to drive forest conservation on their own.

My second point is that trade-offs inherent in policy decisions around such complex interactions mean that we have to improve substantially the knowledge base regarding ecosystem functioning and services, including how these services contribute to our overall well-being.

The good news is that Potsdam is already helping us to do just this by showing that we can apply accounting principles already used by government (GDP), business (profit/loss) and ourselves in every day decisions to calculate the physical stocks and flows of ecosystem services, their economic value, and how these values are distributed and hence impact on different sections of society. We published partial land accounts for Europe in 2006, presented an enhanced methodological proposal at the Beyond GDP conference in 2007 and this year we will publish fuller accounts for wetlands, based on this.

I do not want to underestimate the complexity of this work, because it is very challenging. Rather, I want to leave you with the message that we have been able to show in a very short time that real results can be achieved and with your support more can be done.

We in the Agency will take these forest case studies, apply them within the accounting framework and deliver results for Europe before 2010. I hope to be able to come back to you at a future meeting and communicate the outcome.

In the meantime, I hope that I have been able to make the link between your discussions today and those in Bonn next month by showing that biomass is only one of the many ecosystem services provided by Europe’s forests. 

Slides (PDF, 847KB)



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