Brussels -- A new Forest Strategy responding to the new challenges facing forests and the forest sector has been published by the European Commission today, which underlines the importance of forest resources in the EU.
The EU currently contains 5 % of the world's forests and EU forests have continuously expanded for over 60 years, although recently at a lower rate. EU Forests and other wooded land now cover 155 million ha and 21 million ha respectively. This together means more than 42 % of EU land area is covered with forest and other wooded land.
Area covered by forests in Europe has increased at a rate of approximately 0.4% per year since 1990, as a result of afforestation programmes, natural succession of vegetation and abandonment of farming. This is in contrast to the current global situation where the forest area continues to decline, with a global rate of deforestation still alarmingly high, impacting negatively on global climate and biodiversity. Other wooded land (OWL) represents only a small part (6%) of the EU-27 land area, except in some areas of southern Europe (Greece, Spain and Cyprus) where it reaches around 20% of the land area. Indeed, in South Europe the climatic and edaphic conditions favour scattered vegetation.
Covering large parts of rural areas, forests are vital for the rural population because they support economic welfare and jobs. Forests provide a wealth of benefits and services to the European citizens; these are often referred to as forest ecosystem services (FES). FES include wood and non-wood products as well as services such as recreation, water and soil conservation, protection against natural hazards, biodiversity etc. Many of these benefits are difficult to quantify. Thus, the socio-economic importance of forests is often underestimated.
Around 60% of the EU's forests are in private hands, with about 16 million private forest owners. Private forest holdings have an average size of 13 ha, but the majority of privately owned forests are smaller than 5 ha. The remaining 40% is publicly owned. Public ownership dominates in most of the eastern and south-eastern EU Member States. The average size of public forest holdings is more than 1000 ha, with considerable variations among countries.
Forests are subject to multiple pressures and can suffer a series of damages from biotic and abiotic sources. Furthermore, the effect of climate change, which will have a clear latitudinal effect through the increase of temperatures and drought in southern Europe, is already noticeable in the altitudinal gradient. Species at the lower altitudes of mountains in Europe are already suffering from decreased precipitation and increased temperature. Therefore, the immediate effect that climate change signals is the shift in the range of suitability for forest tree species across Europe. These changes will certainly lead to an increase of biotic damages, as species become highly susceptible to the attack of pests. Forests will also become more susceptible to abiotic damages produced by more frequent windstorms, droughts and forest fires.
In the last years there has been an increased competition for forest products and services. For instance, European forests are the largest reservoir of biodiversity compared to other terrestrial ecosystems, while providing over 50% of the renewable energy in Europe. Growing demands represents an opportunity for this sector, but, at the same time, poses a significant challenge for maintaining forest ecosystems, increasing the potential for conflicts. It is important that SFM principles are applied to ensure in the long term the provision of multiple goods and services.
Sustainable Forest Management
Sustainable Forest Management is the stewardship and use of forests and forest lands 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 ecosystems1.
There are several initiatives across the EU to support, implement and assess sustainable forest management. Criteria and indicators have been developed by Forest Europe for the pan-European region to report on the implementation of sustainable forest management by countries.
The six pan-European criteria for reporting SFM are:
- Maintenance and appropriate enhancement of forest resources and their contribution to global carbon cycles;
- Maintenance of forest ecosystems’ health and vitality;
- Maintenance and encouragement of productive functions of forests (wood and non-wood);
- Maintenance, conservation and appropriate enhancement of biological diversity in forest ecosystems;
- Maintenance, conservation and appropriate enhancement of protective functions in forest management (notably soil and water); and
- Maintenance of other socio-economic functions and conditions.
Forests and rural development
Covering 40% of total EU area, forests are a key resource for improving quality of life and job creation, in particular in rural areas
See also: http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/forest/
Forests and environment
Forests offer habitats for animals and plants. They also provide numerous other ecosystem services. Nearly a quarter of the EU’s forest area is protected under Natura 2000, and much of the rest is home to species protected under EU nature legislation.
Forests and bioenergy
Forest biomass is currently the most important source of renewable energy and now accounts for around half of the EU’s total renewable energy consumption.
Forest and climate change
In 2009, land use, land use change and forestry removed an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equal to about 9% of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in other sectors
Forest and research
Wood is considered an important source of raw material for emerging bio-based industries
Forest reproductive material
1 : Source: Second Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, 16-17 June 1993, Helsinki/Finland, 'Resolution H1 - General Guidelines for the Sustainable Management of Forests in Europe'