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

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

This is why the Greens/EFA are calling for the European Commission to urgently present a forest monitoring law. This would ensure that our governments, forest owners, forest-based industries, investors, and insurers get timely, accurate and detailed information on the state of our forests.

The collection and publication of such data is not a burden but an investment into our future, 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 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, the composition of the vegetation other than trees or soil integrity. Where the data exists, it is not necessarily comparable between countries, due to the wide range of methods and definitions used.

In some countries, such data is available. Sweden appears to be ahead of other countries, whereas Finland is currently expanding its forest monitoring system. In many other countries, the authorities have only little information.

In addition, the 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.

Forest monitoring – we need to know what we want to protect

We must stop the rapid loss of nature. That means we need to restore over-used, degraded forests and strictly protect our remaining natural forests. To be able to do so, we need to have a good understanding of what is there and what could be there instead.

What kind of data do we need to monitor European forests:

  • We need to digitally map all our forests, combining satellite data with on-the-ground observations.
  • Specifically, we need a detailed map of our primary and old growth forests.
  • We need good quality data for all countries, that is publicly available, and comparable across different countries.
  • That data must show us the state of our forest ecosystems, also beyond the important forest habitats defined and monitored under the EU’s Habitats Directive.
  • It must allow us to see trends over time, to evaluate whether we are heading in the right direction.
  • We also need data that allows us to assess risks and damages related to natural disasters, to prepare and respond better.

Forest data helps to support forest owners and a greener planet

This data 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. These services include the removal of carbon, an integral element of the EU’s climate strategy. They also include sustaining water cycles and purifying the air we breathe.

The European Commission’ Progress Report on EU Climate Action has highlighted the alarming fact that Europe’s – mostly forest-related – carbon removals are declining. With good data, forest owners can quickly understand such changes and adjust their management.

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

In that sense, robust and up-to-date EU-wide forest monitoring is an investment. It is an investment for forest owners, an investment into our nature and climate, an investment into our future.

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