EU aims to ring-fence ‘old-growth forests’ in new biodiversity plan

“It is particularly important to strictly protect the EU’s remaining primary and old-growth forests,” the Commission says in its draft biodiversity strategy scheduled for publication on 20 May. [naql / Flickr]

At least 10% of land – considerably more than the current 3% – will have to be declared “strictly protected areas” under a new EU biodiversity strategy due to be unveiled later this month.

The EU executive also plans a “roadmap” for planting “at least three billion trees” by 2030 across the European Union in order to support biodiversity and ecosystem restoration.

“It is particularly important to strictly protect the EU’s remaining primary and old-growth forests,” the Commission says in its draft biodiversity strategy scheduled for publication on 20 May.

“These are the richest forest ecosystems and keep removing carbon from the atmosphere, while storing significant carbon stocks, including in forest soils,” says the draft policy document, which was published online by ARC2020, an environmental NGO.

The protection of old-growth forests at the European level has proved a hot political potato in the past. Forests are currently managed at the national level and governments have so far tended to see any EU interference with suspicion.

Those tensions came to the surface in the summer of 2017 when the European Commission ordered an emergency ban on logging in Poland’s protected Białowieża Forest, citing risks of serious and irreparable damage to nature if harvests continued.

Poland claimed the logging was necessary to control an alleged outbreak of bark beetle which went out of control due to the vast amounts of dead wood in Białowieska, an argument that was later rejected by the EU court of justice.

Poland’s logging of protected forest is illegal, top EU court rules

European Court of Justice judges decided on Tuesday (17 April) that Poland’s logging activities in Białowieża Forest are against EU law and heavy fines are due to follow unless the government takes immediate action.

Legally binding “nature restoration targets”

Now the Commission claims more should be done for old-growth forests as part of EU efforts to protect biodiversity and reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050.

Next year, the EU executive plans to table legally-binding “EU nature restoration targets” in order to “restore healthy and resilient ecosystems” – including old-growth and primary forests.

But the Commission plan has already raised questions about what is meant exactly by ‘old-growth’.

“One issue with the term ‘old-growth forest’ is that definitions vary,” said Keith Kline, a scientist at the prestigious Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US.

“Several sources consider any forest that has been undisturbed and contains canopy trees of 150 years or older to be ‘old growth’ and there is broad scientific consensus that such forests are of immeasurable value to humanity,” Kline told EURACTIV in an interview.

Still, the definition of ‘old-growth’ is expected to generate tensions among EU countries because it will determine the percentage of land that will be declared off-limits. And no EU country will want to lose out on land currently used for forestry activities.

“Regarding old-growth forests, we need to have definitions at EU level in place first,” said Petri Sarvamaa, a Finnish MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) who authored a draft report on the European Forest Strategy for the European Parliament.

“For example, what percentage of forests in Europe is ‘old growth’? That depends on the definition,” Sarvamaa remarked.

“And that’s where the political fight begins,” he told EURACTIV, pointing out that the types of forests that could qualify as ‘old growth’ in Spain or Portugal would be very different from those in Boreal regions like Sweden or Finland.

Finnish MEP: 'Political fight begins' over Europe’s old-growth forests

The forests in Europe that can be considered “old growth” – and therefore declared protected areas – depends on the definition, says Petri Sarvamaa. “And that’s where the political fight begins,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.

Cost-benefit analysis

Sarvamaa also said reliable statistics were needed in order to have comparable data between EU countries, which is currently not the case.

The Commission is aware of this and plans to simultaneously launch a new “EU forest data and information architecture” that will generate up-to-date information on the condition of European forests on a web platform.

Data will also be central in a cost-benefit analysis – or impact assessment in EU jargon – that will identify the most effective measures to reach the Commission’s proposed new nature objectives.

This impact assessment study is likely to be closely scrutinised by EU member states with big forestry sectors, such as the Nordic countries.

Forestry – including the wood and paper industry – accounts for approximately 1% of EU GDP, and up to 5% for countries like Finland, providing jobs for some 2.6 million people, according to figures from the European Parliament’s research service.

Private forest owners are also keeping a close look, saying the disruption to forest supply chains brought on by the COVID-19 crisis has shed new light on the economic function of forests.

“The EU’s biodiversity Strategy to 2030 will need to acknowledge the new reality by providing a broader perspective” than nature conservation, said the Confederation of European Private Forest Owners (CEPF).

But so far, the Commission’s draft biodiversity strategy is “largely overlooking the social and economic dimension” of forests, the group said in a statement.

In particular, CEPF says nature conservation targets “raise high concerns” among private forest owners and “call for more clarity” on behalf of EU regulators.

“No protection on the EU land should be set before clear and agreed definitions are in place at EU level,” CEPF said, calling instead for EU initiatives to be “of voluntary nature” only.

Forest protection likely to be new priority for EU Parliament

Large areas of forest are being cleared worldwide for the agricultural industry. Although the EU requires its contracting partners to protect the environment,  it lacks the means for enforcement. Environmentalists and the European Parliament see an urgent need for action. EURACTIV Germany reports.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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