Willing to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, the European Union is relying on forests – one of its natural heritage treasures – to reach this goal. Thus, in the wake of the Green Deal officially launched in 2020, the Fit for 55 package and the Biodiversity Strategy, the European Commission presented its new EU Forest Strategy on 16 July. It does not, however, include the topic of deforestation, which is concern by separate measures on a global scale, as indicated in the Commission's Communication (2019) on strengthening EU action to protect and restore forests worldwide.
A strategy to preserve and restore forest ecosystems
The strategy includes many positive elements showing that the protection and restoration of these ecosystems are considered: strict protection of primary and old-growth forests; proposal of a legally binding instrument for the restoration of European forest ecosystems by the end of 2021; and the development of guidelines for afforestation and reforestation that respect biodiversity by the first quarter of 2022. The Commission thus insists on healthy and resilient forests as the main tool to help the EU to meet its climate commitments, protect biodiversity and contribute to the prosperity of rural areas, especially by encouraging the development of non-wood related activities (ecotourism, sport, etc.).
The EU has also demonstrated its desire to preserve jobs and the economy linked to the forestry sector. In this respect, the strategy proposes the introduction of "closer-to-nature" certificate to encourage good forest management practices by labelling the products produced and promoting sustainable forest management. Moreover, the bioeconomy will play an important role in this ambition, particularly for the construction sector (use of wood materials with carbon sequestration, for example). While the intention is commendable, as it allows to fight climate change by promoting the development of less carbon-intensive products and services, the Strategy states that: “the supply of wood products should be done in synergy with improving the conservation status of European and global forests, and preserving and restoring biodiversity for forest resilience, climate adaptation and forest multifunctionality.” Indeed, according to the strategy: “as indicated in recent studies, in the short to medium term, i.e., until 2050, the potential additional benefits from harvested wood products and material substitution are unlikely to compensate for the reduction of the net forest sink associated with the increased harvesting. Member States should pay attention to this risk, which is in their responsibility under relevant applicable legislation.”
An innovative strategy subject to arbitration
The Commission has also been innovative in positioning itself on the development of payment for ecosystem services schemes: by November 2021, the Commission will provide technical advice and guidance on the development of a Europe-wide payment for ecosystem services scheme; as well as promoting forest-related payment schemes in an action plan for certification of agriculture and carbon removal, to be adopted by the end of 2021. Furthermore, support for “the evidence-based design and implementation of forest restoration strategies with engagement of the society and in different ecological and socio-economic settings, including through the planned research and innovation mission on soil health for forest soils” illustrates the EU desire to include every stakeholder to the forestry dialogue.
However, other issues are not yet clearly defined by the Strategy. Monitoring forest health is a major issue: for example, between 2015 and 2020, 3% of Europe's forests were damaged due to strong winds, insect attacks, forest fires or ungulate browsing. Providing harmonised data on European forests would therefore make it possible to adapt management policies and to have a global vision of these ecosystems in the long term (research and development, innovation). While the European Union’s forests are becoming increasingly vulnerable to climate change and its consequences, the EU would really benefit from a common data collection system.
Similarly, the Commission's ambitions for forest protection and preservation may come up against other realities. Indeed, the REDII Directive encourages the use of renewable energy and thus wood energy (wood-based bioenergy is currently the main source of renewable energy, providing 60% of the EU's renewable energy use). However, the Commission calls on "Member States [to] design their support schemes for the use of biomass for energy in a way that minimises undue distortive effects on the biomass raw material market and harmful impacts on biodiversity.”
Three billion additionnal trees to be planted
In parallel to the EU Forest Strategy, the European Commission is committed to plant 3 billion additional trees in the EU by 2030. The principle of additionality here is based on additional afforestation that will complement the programmes already established by some Member States and will in any case reduce existing biodiversity. This measure, which is part of the Biodiversity Strategy, will have to be deployed in compliance with clearly defined ecological standards and with specialised actors to meet the principle of "the right tree, at the right place, for the right purpose". Agroforestry, agricultural and urban plots are concerned by the programme and long-term monitoring will be carried out in these areas. These additional plantings will complement efforts to adapt forests affected by hazards through diversified reforestation, planting and assisted natural regeneration projects.
The new EU Forest Strategy will be submitted to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Regarding the pressures from stakeholders with divergent interests, the Strategy may be subject to significant changes.