The EU forest monitoring law – Time to uncover our forests‘ hidden secrets

Our forests in Europe are vital for preserving wildlife and for fighting against climate change. But we lack knowledge about our forests, that would help us to restore and protect them. We need to know what we want to protect.

This is why the Greens/EFA welcome the European Commission’s proposal for a forest monitoring law. Some improvements are needed, but most importantly, negotiations on the law must advance quickly, argues our MEP Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg.

Forests – not only producers of timber, but also of the air we breathe

Most European forests are used to produce wood. These ‘production forests’ are usually managed to maximise wood harvests. As a result, they are losing their biodiversity and capacity to absorb and store carbon. But we need our forests as ‘carbon sinks’ to reduce our emissions to net-zero by 2050.

In fact, timber harvests are suffering too, because weakened ecosystems cannot withstand the rising pressures linked to climate change, like excessive heat, storms, and droughts. Wildfires, storms, pests, and diseases are causing the loss of more and more trees, eroding timber harvests and incomes.

We need to heal our forests and restore their capacity to sustain wildlife and regulate our climate. Let’s not forget that our forests also protect us against soil erosion and flooding, purify the air we breathe, improve water quality, and enhance water retention. Finally, healthy forests are our best insurance against climate-related extreme weather, such as heat, drought, and floods.

There are almost none of our precious natural forest left in Europe

Few forests are in a state where natural processes are undisturbed by man. We call them ‘primary forests’, or ‘old-growth forests’ when they have not been logged in many years and reached a near-primary state.

Experts estimate that less than 3 percent of our forests are of such quality. But until today, we do not know exactly where they are, and where they are in danger of logging.

We urgently need to protect these remaining forests where ecosystems are intact, nature thrives and carbon cycles function as they should.

What do we know about our forests?

When governments collect data, it is mostly related to timber production. Since forests have been viewed as ‘timber fields’ only, other valuable ‘services’ provided by forest ecosystems have been largely neglected. And so, we know the forest area of our countries, how much wood is in our forests (‘timber stock’), and how much is harvested. We also know which tree species are planted.

Much of this information is in our National Forest Inventories. These inventories have their limitations, however. In Germany, for example, the National Forest Inventory is performed every ten years and is based on data from sample plots.

The inventories give us little information about the biodiversity in our forests, such as the number of old and rare trees, the naturalness of the tree species composition, or the composition of the vegetation other than trees. Where the data exists, it is not necessarily comparable between countries, due to the wide range of methods and definitions used.

In addition, national datasets do not have to be publicly available. This leads to unfortunate situations in which different stakeholders present contradictory datasets and decision makers must choose which data they want to trust.

NGOs and researchers are already mapping forests, using satellite data and expert observations. Good examples are Global Forest Watch and Naturwald Akademie. Metsä, a big company from Finland, is developing a system based on Artificial Intelligence to monitor storm and insect damage.

What has the European Commission proposed? 

Under the proposed law, the European Commission itself and EU governments would collect data on a set of 22 indicators, ranging from the overall forest area to tree species composition and richness. The Commission would use satellite technology to gather standardised data across all 27 EU countries. National governments would complement this with on-the-ground data that is comparable between countries. The frequency for collecting the data would vary between one week and six years, depending on the indicators. 

Governments would be obliged to map (and share) the location of primary and old-growth forests by 1 January 2028. They would also need to map the forest habitats defined under the EU’s Habitats Directive. This would have to happen first inside EU-protected areas, then also outside them. All data would be made publicly available in a machine-readable format. 

In addition, governments would be encouraged – but not obliged – to set up integrated long-term forest plans, based on an EU template. 

Some forest industries want to hide their disastrous impacts 

Some governments and powerful industry groups seem to be anxious about what the new monitoring system could reveal. They want to continue clear-cutting our EU forests, even old-growth forests, and it suits them that the data is patchy and logging often goes unnoticed. They question the added value of the proposed legislation and argue that the monitoring law will increase costs and duplicate existing efforts. 

But the collection and publication of timely and accurate forest data is not a burden but an investment into our future. 

Robust and up-to-date EU-wide forest monitoring will offer our governments, forest owners, forest-based industries, investors, and insurers the accurate and detailed information they need to track progress towards our climate and biodiversity objectives. Several EU laws rely on such data, including the EU rules on carbon emissions from land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) and the EU’s Habitats Directive. 

It will help to inform the management of our ‘production forests’ as well as our efforts to strictly protect our remaining natural forests. It will also help us to compensate forest owners for the ‘ecosystem services’ their forests provide us with, beyond the production of timber. 

No more delays – let’s clear the way for an EU forest monitoring law

To be able to restore our overused, degraded forests and to strictly protect our remaining natural forests, we need a good understanding of what is there and what could be there instead. 

What we do not measure, we will not value. What we do not value, we will not pay for. 

To prevent further damage to our forests, the new EU monitoring obligations should be introduced as fast as possible. The location of Europe’s precious old-growth forests should be published already in 2025, as proposed in the Commission’s guidelines on the matter. Not only the Commission and national authorities, but also independent experts should be involved. The EU must move quickly to finalise this law, in tandem with the EU soil monitoring law. This way we can restore our forests in good time to reach the 2030 objectives that we set ourselves in the EU and globally.

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