2017 was marked by discussions over the potential of forests to reduce GHG emissions, the use of biomass for energy, criticisms over the polish government handling of the beetle problem in the Białowieża Forest and the devastating number and intensity of wildfires in parts of Europe.
The Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) regulation that was agreed, sets accounting rules for the CO2 emissions and sequestration in land use and forestry against 2030 reduction goals. Growing forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, wood products store carbon over the years of their use, and the substitution effect due to the replacement of non-renewable materials and fossil fuels is significant in terms of GHG savings. The regulation encourages Member States to continue using their growing forest resources sustainably in order to decarbonise the European economy, thus avoiding outsource the provision of sustainable raw materials for our bioeconomy in non-EU countries.
The Directive on the Promotion of the Use of Energy from Renewable Sources also led to heated discussions during the year. Even with some setbacks, the legislation recognises the importance of forests and their role in tackling climate change. In the specific case of bioenergy, the carbon released during biomass combustion is balanced by the forest growth from which the biomass is sourced. Biomass for energy can be directly supplied from forests or as a by-product of industry. Developing new markets and end uses for all types of biomass from forests could increase the efficient use of currently unused feedstock, such as the raw material derived from thinning. One of the main compromises was the “risk-based” approach for biomass, which takes into account existing legislation and tools on sustainable forest management to address sustainability concerns.
The controversy over the logging in Poland's Białowieża Forest was the topic that got the most media attention. Białowieża is the gateway to Europe’s most primaeval forest but was also the centre of a battle about the future of the forest. As a consequence, the European Union decided to refer Poland to the Court of Justice of the EU for increased logging in a protected Natura 2000 site, without a proper assessment of its impacts. While a political issue, this led to the renewed discussions over Natura 2000 management.
The number of forest fires in the EU has more than doubled in 2017, which was particularly bad in Portugal, where the fires claimed more than a hundred victims. Experts have blamed climate change for the rise, saying it has extended the traditional wildfire season from two to up to five months and increased the frequency of blazes. Portugal, Italy and Croatia have all been hit amid high temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall.
These are vivid reminders of the necessity to actively manage forests and make them resilient in a changing climate, with increase forest fire and disease risks. Actively and sustainably managed forests are essential to allow the EU to play a leading role in combining environmental resilience with societal needs and economic development. Sustainable Forest Management takes into account the ecosystem processes that contribute to timber production, climate regulation and biodiversity conservation, without them being mutually exclusive. However, the potential for these synergies should be better recognised by decision makers and capitalized on by forest managers.
To deal with all these issues, the ELO remains an active member of the Commission’s Advisory Group on Forest and Cork and works closely together with the main forestry producer’s organisations in Brussels.
In 2018, the ELO will focus on the review of the European Forest Strategy (EUFS). While the responsibility remains in the Member States, the EUFS provides synergies and coherence with the different policy areas that affect forests. It not only addresses key issues like rural development and biodiversity but stresses the importance of forests in terms of the forest-based industries, bio-energy and climate change mitigation.