The European Union and forests

The European Union (EU) does not have a common forestry policy. A large number of the EU’s policies and initiatives affect forests, however, both in the EU itself and in non-EU countries.

What is a forest? This would seem to be a simple question, but there is no one answer valid for all the Member States. For the purposes of international forestry statistics, forests are deemed to be land with an area of more than 0.5 hectares and tree crown cover of more than 10%, and where trees can reach a minimum height of five metres at maturity.

Forests in the European Union: valuable multifaceted and multi-purpose ecosystems

a.The European forest landscape, a mosaic largely shaped by man

Taking the definition given above, there are 161 million hectares of forest (4% of the world total) in the EU. In total, forests cover 38% of the EU’s land area: six Member States (Finland, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Sweden) account for two-thirds of the EU’s forested areas (5.2.10). Forest coverage varies considerably from one Member State to another: while forests in Finland, Sweden and Slovenia cover more than 60% of the country, the equivalent figure is only 11% in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Moreover, unlike in many parts of the world where deforestation is still a major problem, in the EU the area of land covered by forests is growing; by 2010 forest coverage had increased by approximately 11 million hectares since 1990, as a result of both natural growth and afforestation work.

The EU has many different types of forests, reflecting its geoclimatic diversity (boreal forests, alpine forests with conifers, etc.). Their distribution is mainly determined by climate, soil type, altitude and topography. Only 4% of the forested area has not been modified by human intervention; 8% consists of plantations, while the remainder fall into the category of ‘semi-natural’ forests, i.e. ones shaped by man. What is more, the majority of European forests are privately owned (approximately 60% of forested land) rather than publicly owned (40%).

b.The multifunctionality of forests: their environmental, economic and social role

Environmentally speaking, forests provide numerous ecosystem services: they help protect the soil (against erosion), form part of the water cycle, and regulate the local climate (mainly via evapotranspiration) and the global climate (in particular by storing carbon). They also protect biodiversity by providing a habitat for numerous species.

From a socioeconomic point of view, working forests generate resources, in particular timber. Timber can be obtained from 134 million of the 161 million hectares of forests (there are no legal, economic or environmental restrictions on this activity). What is more, felling in these forests accounts for only around two thirds of the rise in the annual volume of timber used. The primary use is for energy generation (42% of volume), as against 24% for sawmills, 17% for the paper industry and 12% for the panel industry. Approximately half of the renewable energy consumed in the EU comes from wood. In addition, forests are a source of non-wood products — food (berries and mushrooms), cork, resins and oils — and are needed for certain services (hunting, tourism, etc.). Forests are thus sources of employment, particularly in rural areas. The forestry sector (forestry, wood and paper industry) accounts for approximately 1% of EU GDP, although the figure is as high as 5% in Finland, and provides jobs for some 2.6 million people. Lastly, forests have an important place in European culture.

c.Abiotic and biotic threats — challenges exacerbated by climate change

The abiotic (i.e physical or chemical) threats to forests include fires (particularly in the Mediterranean); drought; storms (on average, over the past 60 years, two storms a year have caused significant damage to EU forests); and atmospheric pollution (emissions from road traffic). The fragmentation of forests as a result of the construction of road infrastructure also poses a threat to biodiversity. As for biotic factors, animals (insects, cervids) and diseases can damage forests. In total, approximately 6% of forested land areas are damaged by at least one of these factors.

Climate change is already a serious problem for Europe’s forests. Whilst its precise impact will differ depending on geographic location, climate change is likely to affect the forests’ rate of growth, their range, the range of certain parasites, and even the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. How forests can adapt to these changes and the part they can play in combating them (e.g. through the use of wood instead of non-renewable energy and materials) represent two major challenges.

The EU’s forests are thus the focus of numerous expectations, some of them competing, as the tensions between working them and protecting them illustrate. Reconciling difficulties of this kind forms one of the main challenges in the area of forestry governance.

Forestry policy and initiatives in the European Union: coherence is the key

As the Treaties make no specific reference to forests, the EU does not have a common forestry policy. Forestry policy is thus still primarily a national matter. Many EU measures do have an impact on forests in EU and non-EU countries alike, however.

a.A new EU reference framework for forestry

In September 2013, the Commission adopted a new European Union Forestry Strategy (COM(2013) 0659), proposing an EU reference framework to be used when drawing up sectoral policies that will have an impact on forests. The strategy’s guiding principles are sustainable forest management and promotion of their multifunctional role, resource efficiency and the EU’s global forest responsibility. It also sets out a strategic approach governing action by the Commission and the Member States. To give just one example, the Commission has undertaken to develop sustainable forest management criteria. In September 2015, it adopted the multi-annual implementation plan of the EU forest strategy, which draws up a list of the actions that are to be taken.

The strategy is accompanied by a blueprint (SWD(2013)0343) identifying measures to be taken in response to challenges in the European timber sector.

b.A wide range of European Union actions affecting forests

1.The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the main source of EU funds for forests

Some 90% of EU funding for forests comes from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). During the last programming period, 2007-2013, approximately EUR 5.4 billion was allocated from the EAFRD budget to co-finance forestry measures. Following the most recent reform of the CAP, the new regulation on support for rural development by the EAFRD was published in December 2013 (Regulation (EU) No 1305/2013 5.2.6). In the interests of simplification, over the period 2015-2020 a single specific measure includes all types of support for investment in forests. The measure covers investment in the development of forested areas and improvement of the viability of forests: afforestation and creation of woodland, establishment of agro-forestry systems, prevention and restoration of damage to forests from forest fires, natural disasters and catastrophic events, investment to improve the resilience and environmental value of forest ecosystems and investment in forestry technologies and in the processing, promotion and marketing of forest products. Another measure is intended to provide rewards for forestry, environmental and climate services and the conservation of forests. Provision has also been made for other measures not specific to forestry (Natura 2000 and Water Framework Directive payments, for example). It is up to Member States to select the forestry measures which they implement, and to decide on the financing to be provided for them, as part of their rural development programmes. Some EUR 8.2 billion has been earmarked for the 2015-2020 period (27% for reforesting, 18% to make forests more resilient and 18% for damage prevention).

2.Other European Union measures which have an impact on forests: a snapshot

The marketing of forest reproductive material is regulated at EU level by Directive 1999/105/EC. The European plant health regime aims to prevent harmful organisms spreading to forests (Directive 2000/29/EC). The EU also helps fund forest research, in particular under the Horizon 2020 Programme. In the energy policy sphere, the EU has set itself the legally binding target of meeting 20% of total energy consumption from renewable energy sources by 2020, which should increase the demand for forestry biomass (Directive 2009/28/EC). The new EU climate and energy framework for 2030 sets a higher target: 27%. Moreover, under the cohesion policy, forestry projects (fire prevention, renewable energy production, climate-change preparations, etc.) can be co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund. The Solidarity Fund (Council Regulation (EC) No 2012/2002) seeks to help Member States tackle major natural disasters, such as storms and forest fires. As for the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism (Decision 1313/2013/EC), this can be deployed when a crisis outstrips a Member State’s ability to cope, as has happened with some forest fires (Greece, 2007 and 2012) and some storms.

In addition, some 37.5 million hectares of forest are part of the Natura 2000 nature protection network, set up under the EU’s environmental policy. The rational use of forests is one of the thematic priorities of the European Union’s new Environment and Climate Action Programme (LIFE 2014-2020, Regulation (EU) No 1293/2013). The EU Biodiversity Strategy (COM(2011) 0244) stipulates that sustainable forest management plans for publicly owned forests must be in place by 2020. The European Forest Fire Information System EFFIS monitors forest fires. The EU also encourages ecological tendering (COM(2008) 0400), which may promote demand for sustainably produced timber; the European ecolabel has been awarded for wood flooring, furniture and paper. In addition, the FLEGT Action Plan provides for ‘Voluntary Partnership Agreements’ with timber-producing countries and a regulation to ban the marketing of illegally harvested timber which came into force in March 2013 (Regulation (EU) No 995/2010).

The EU also participates in numerous international activities relating to forests (in particular the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Forest Europe is still the main political initiative on forests at pan-European level. Discussions are under way on a legally binding agreement on forest management and sustainable use. As part of its policy on climate change, in addition to its participation in global negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the EU has taken its first steps towards integrating agriculture and forestry into its climate policy (Decision (EU) No 529/2013 on accounting rules on greenhouse gas emissions and removals resulting from activities relating to land use, land-use change and forestry). The EU has also set itself the objective of halting the loss of global forest cover by 2030 at the latest and reducing tropical deforestation by at least 50% by 2020 (COM(2008) 0645). It is also funding projects under the REDD+ Programme to reduce emissions linked to deforestation and forest degradation in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Finally, the Neighbourhood Policy can also be put to use; the FLEG II programme has EUR 9 million available for the period 2012-2016 to promote good forestry governance, sustainable management of forests and forest protection in countries to the east of the EU.

Role of the European Parliament

The European Parliament legislates on an equal footing with the Council in a great many fields that affect forests: agriculture, the environment, etc. (ordinary legislative procedure). Moreover, Parliament adopts the EU budget jointly with the Council. Parliament has influenced many items of legislation which have recently been completed and which affect forests (the revised Common Agricultural Policy, for instance). Other legislative proposals are currently pending (particularly the revision of Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources — procedure 2012/0288 (COD)). Parliament also regularly adopts resolutions concerning forests. Its resolution of 30 January 1997 (T4-0026/1997) in particular resulted in the Council adopting the European Union Forestry Strategy in 1998. In its resolution of 16 February 2006 (T6-0068/2006) Parliament gave its support to the implementation of an action plan on sustainable forest management, taking the view that a more coherent and active approach was needed to improve forest management. Finally, in its resolution of 11 May 2011 (T7-0226/2011), Parliament supported a revision of the Forestry Strategy in order to address the challenges linked to climate change and the sustainable management of forests. In 2015 Parliament adopted a resolution on a new EU Forest Strategy: for forests and the forest-based sector (P8_TA(2015)0109). In the resolution Parliament calls on the Commission to supplement the strategy with a robust action plan containing specific measures and to report to it annually on the progress made in the implementation of specific actions under the strategy. In Parliament’s view priority should be given to promoting the competitiveness and sustainability of the forest sector, supporting both rural and urban areas, expanding the knowledge base, protecting forests and preserving their ecosystems, improving coordination and communication and increasing the sustainable use of wood and non-wood forest products. On 21 November 2016 Phil Hogan announced to Parliament that the EU Forestry Strategy would shortly be reviewed and public consultations launched, by the end of 2016, focusing particularly on sustainable forest management.

Guillaume Ragonnaud