Brussels chops through EU forest rules


An agriculture council is to discuss today (23 September) the EU’s new forest strategy, which aims to cut through the mass of rules governing the protection of forests.

More than 40% of the European Union is made up of forest, which houses more of its biodiversity than any other ecosystem. Many communities and industries, such as paper and bioenergy, are dependent on the forests, which also play a key role in keeping global carbon emissions in check.

Protecting this “resource” is the rationale behind the EU’s new forest strategy, published on Friday, which aims to overhaul European forestry rules.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive, calls for what it calls “sustainable forest management”, the use of forest land in a way and rate that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and potential to fulfil ecological, economic and social functions, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems.

Climate change, through the increase of temperatures and drought in southern Europe, is already having a noticeable effect on the EU’s forest, the European Commission says. Pollution and deforestation for infrastructure and industrial activities is also mounting pressure on the delicate ecosystem.

EU Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Dacian Ciolo? said: "Forests are key ecosystems, as well as a source of wealth and jobs in rural areas, if they are managed in a proper way. Sustainable forest management, ensuring the protection of forests, is a key pillar of rural development and it is one of the principles of the new Forest Strategy.”

The association of European farmers Copa-Cogeca lent its support to the strategy, which it says will give the EU consistency over its many policy areas that have an impact on forests.

Copa-Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said: “Forests cover 40% of the EU area and are a key driver for growth and employment in EU rural areas at the same time as protecting ecosytems. Rules are currently fragmented and scattered across different policy areas so it is crucial to have a coherent approach.”

Making money from forests

But the European Court of Auditors has taken issue with EU support aimed at improving the “economic value” of forests. “Member states used the measure to support operations which did not correspond to the programme’s goals and which would be more appropriately financed by other measure with different eligibility requirements and aid financing rates, usually lower,” the ECA said in a statement on Thursday.

The ECA found that only a few of the audited projects improved significantly the economic value of the forests, by improving the value of the land through building forest tracks and roads, for example.

The court, which found instances of disproportionately high public support, recommended that the Commissions better target its approach for improving the economic value of forests in its overhaul of the current EU rules.

The strategy will now be passed on to members of the European Parliament and ministers for approval before it can become legislation. A group of agricultural experts will discuss the proposals today in the European Council.

The EU contains 5% of the world's forests. EU forests have continuously expanded for over 60 years, although recently at a lower rate. EU Forests and other wooded land cover 155 million hectares and 21 million ha respectively. This together means more than 42% of EU land area is covered with forest and other wooded land.

Forests are subject to multiple pressures and can suffer a series of damages from biotic and abiotic sources, the European Commission says.

The current EU Forestry Strategy dates back to 1998. Based on cooperation between the EU institutions and countries, it set a framework for forest-related actions supporting sustainable forest management. However, the Commission says that new framework is now needed in order to respond to the increasing demands put on forests and to significant societal and political changes that have affected forests over the last 15 years.

The new strategy, published on Friday (20 September), brings together various policy areas, including rural development, enterprise, environment, bioenergy, climate change, research and development. In a related initiative, the Commission also issued a blueprint laying out the activities to help EU's forest-based industries overcome their current challenges.

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