As the subject of one of the “flagship” initiatives of the European Commission’s “Fit for 55/2030” climate package, forests have been placed in the political limelight.
The very foundations of the proposed forestry strategy, replacing the one adopted in 2013, are, of course, uncontroversial: we need forests – they are “the lungs of our planet”, as the environment commissioner put it. Virginijus Sinkevičius at his press conference at the end of last week, and we have to deal with it.
But if the old EU strategy struggled to improve the condition of Europe’s forests, will the new one fare any better? Environmental activists and several MEPs are skeptical.
Commenting on his website, German Greens / ALE MP Martin Häusling says the prerequisite for beneficial effects of forests is that they are “stable, intact and at least in a half-natural state”, before adding: “We are often very far from that.
Criticizing the European Commission’s proposal to plant three billion new trees by 2030 as being half-cooked, Häusling argues that “no one knows what type of trees would be appropriate in a warming climate. Rather than relentlessly resorting to costly planting actions, in many cases it would be much better to give forests time to adapt to natural change.
The Commission itself admits in its fact sheet on the Three Billion Trees Program that it “should not be seen as an alternative to the preservation of existing trees, which remains the top priority”.
“What we are seeing now is a clear risk that the EU’s centralized systems jeopardize long-standing traditions and best practices developed by forest owners across Europe. My main concern is that the EU is undermining a sector that will be desperately needed in the climate transition. Swedish EPP MEP Jessica Polfjärd
The most valuable type of forest – from an environmental point of view – is old-growth forest, but this constitutes only three percent of Europe’s forests.
Banning the logging industry from harvesting old-growth forests, as the Commission is proposing, would undoubtedly help to preserve them, but would amount to little more than a drop in the ocean – or rather the 43 percent of the land area. EU that are covered with forests.
Number two on the list of environmentally important forests are “highly biodiverse” forests. These are threatened by a drastically increased demand for woody biomass for energy production, as power plants once used coal are now converting to biomass, notably in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Woody biomass is still defined in EU legislation as a “zero carbon” energy source on the grounds that emissions are accounted for in the so-called “Land use, land-use change and forestry” sector (LULUCF ). This has resulted in increased dependence on forest biomass to meet EU renewable energy targets.
As the EU’s Joint Research Center (JRC) found in a recent study, biomass combustion has doubled since the early 2000s and has already exceeded projected levels. Today, half of all the wood harvested in Europe is burned for energy. Green Forests lobby group Fern summed up the less-than-pink picture in a reaction to the Fit for 2030 proposals, saying “the EU’s dependence on bioenergy has put enormous additional pressure on forests, which means that EU forests absorb 15 percent less carbon dioxide since 2005.. “
Environmental organizations are therefore asking the EU to urgently remove forest biomass from the list of renewable energy sources in the eponymous directive, and even to legislate to ban all woody biomass other than by-products such as residues. sawmill.
However, EU member states with a significant forest industry are wary of excessive regulation imposed by Brussels.
“The majority of Europe’s forests are managed, and with the biodiversity of our forests in continuous decline, we must no longer pretend that forest management has been sustainable until now. It is clear that voluntary measures have not worked. »Finnish Greens / ALE Deputy, Ville Niinistö
Swedish EPP MEP Jessica Polfjärd told The Parliament magazine: “With the new climate package we are starting to deliver on the ambitions of the Green Deal and our commitments under the climate law”.
“It is crucial that these frameworks strengthen the prospects for European forestry and sustainable forest management. These are actively managed forests with growing trees that absorb the most carbon, and wood-based products replace fossil-based ones. Our policies must reflect the climate contributions of sustainable forestry.
Polfjärd, member of the Parliamentary Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) added: “Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Commission’s new forestry strategy. Rather than encouraging sustainable forest management, the plans proposed by the Commission risk seriously undermining the climate contributions of forestry.
The Commission proposal seems intended to give the EU more influence over forest policy, which is not foreseen in the TFEU. There is a reason for this: Member States themselves know best how to manage and maintain their national forestry traditions.
“What we are seeing now is a clear risk that the EU’s centralized systems jeopardize long-standing traditions and best practices developed by forest owners across Europe. My main concern is that the EU is undermining a sector that will be desperately needed in the climate transition. “
The Greens / ALE coordinator in the Parliamentary Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), Ville Niinistö, on the other hand welcomed the Commission’s proposals as a step forward precisely because they are considering legally binding instruments.
“The majority of Europe’s forests are managed, and with the biodiversity of our forests in continuous decline, we must no longer pretend that forest management has been sustainable until now. It is clear that the voluntary measures have not worked, ”said Niinistö.
“To diversify their income, we must promote the adoption of programs that reward the preservation of ecosystem services, but also non-timber products such as recreation and ecotourism. We want to ensure that they have better access to public funding to strengthen the vitality of rural areas. »European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius
During an exchange of views with EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson last week, Markus Pieper of the EPP Group noted that the forestry strategy was lacking in relation to the forestry industry:
“What is your offer for foresters and farmers? People whose livelihood depends on the forest? he asked Simson, “There’s too little of that in there.”
In response, the Commissioner highlighted the proposals for a reformed LULUCF, where environmentally friendly land use would be better rewarded.
Commissioner Sinkevičius, for his part, said in his press conference: “I must repeat that this is really a strategy for people as well as for nature, and it also means for foresters. We have listened to them, we care about their needs and we do all we can to protect their livelihoods.
“I have met many of them during my recent visits to Finland, Sweden and Germany and listened to their views and concerns.
“To diversify their income, we must promote the adoption of programs that reward the preservation of ecosystem services, but also non-timber products such as recreation and ecotourism. “
“We want to make sure they have better access to public funding to strengthen the vitality of rural areas. “
Parliament itself adopted several own-initiative reports in October last year calling on the Commission to do more to promote sustainable forest management within the EU and to protect forests abroad by removing products that contribute to deforestation.
Members of the ENVI and ITRE committees will have the opportunity to question the commissioners in more detail on the forestry strategy after the summer break.