Is a regenerative economy the cure for Europe's wilting forests?

Around 40% of Europe's tree species are under threat of extinction Image: Andrew Preble on Unsplash

Stéphane Hallaire
CEO and founder, Reforest’Action
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  • Europe's forest ecosystems are under threat, both from climate change and a growing demand for wood.
  • To meet this challenge, we must develop a regenerative and circular forest economy that both restores ecosystems and improves our wellbeing.
  • These projects can also be implemented in agricultural areas, through agroforestry, and in cities.

Especially in light of the European Green Deal, forests are at the centre of the EU's attention because of the important role they will have to play over the coming decades. But climate change and the growing need for wood are weakening European forests.

European forests under stress

The EU, through its ambitions in terms of the energy transition, maintaining biodiversity and carbon neutrality, places European forests at the centre of its development policy, even though they are not able to meet these expectations.

On the one hand, forests currently provide nearly half of Europe's renewable energy, which is set to rise to 32% in 2030, compared to 20% in 2018. This trend, which is accompanied by an objective to reduce energy consumption, puts pressure on European forest ecosystems which have seen a 49% increase in clear-cutting since 2015.

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On the other hand, since the world's forests are home to 80% of the Earth's biodiversity, maintaining or even strengthening them is necessary for Europe's biodiversity strategy. However, a study from 2016 states that 20% of Europe's forests are affected each year by abiotic (such as storms and droughts) and biotic (such as insect pests and pathogenic fungi) hazards. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) adds that 40% of Europe's trees are threatened with extinction.

How, in this context, can the EU's objectives be met at a time when forests are gradually being degraded?

Europe's complicated equation

Climate predictions suggest that forests will be severely degraded in the coming years, which would not only reduce their capacity to store CO2, but would also impact their economic value. On this point, a 2013 scientific study is quite clear: the changes in temperature and precipitation expected by 2100 on the Old Continent could, in the absence of effective measures, depreciate the economic value of European forests by between 14% and 50%.

This last aspect weighs heavily because the EU's ambition is to ensure economic growth while aiming for carbon neutrality and the restoration of biodiversity. Solving this equation requires, according to the Commission's biodiversity strategy, the establishment of a regenerative economy – that is, one that develops while restoring natural ecosystems and improving our well-being.

The economic players, led by businesses and communities, must therefore be part of a circular development model which, from an environmental point of view, must be energy efficient (essentially renewable energy), recycle its waste and restore natural ecosystems.

Wood energy therefore remains a topical issue, but Europe's ambition is to limit the use of whole trees as much as possible and to use only forest waste (such as swarfs and branches). Moreover, in order to reduce our CO2 emissions, wood will be preferred to other less sustainable materials for industry and construction, such as steel, concrete or plastic.

There is therefore a good chance that European forests will continue to be under great strain over the coming decades unless massive investments are made in their favour.

The restoration of forest ecosystems

The European Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 is already setting the tone: 3 billion trees must be planted in new forests, but also in cities and agroforestry. These trees will contribute to the carbon neutrality of the EU, strengthen biodiversity and provide wood for economic sectors that have long been calling for an ambitious approach.

But for the Commission, it is not just a question of increasing the forest area. It also wishes to adapt our boreal, temperate and Mediterranean forests, which are spread over the 4.2 million square kilometres of the EU, to climate change.

Implementing this strategy involves protecting forests rich in biodiversity, restoring forests affected by climate change and implementing environmentally respectful forest management. In particular, the diversity of tree species in forest ecosystems must be maintained or strengthened where possible, as this makes them more resistant to biotic and abiotic hazards, but also respects the continuity of local ecosystems, thus encouraging the development of habitats favourable to endemic animal and plant species.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

Rethinking each non-useful square metre as a potential source of biodiversity enhancement can also be particularly relevant. For example, some lawns can be converted into urban forests of a few hundred square metres; this would enable the company or community that owns the land to save money by stopping mowing and limiting the use of plant protection products where necessary. These micro-forests are in fact real biodiversity centres, carbon sinks and islands of freshness that require no maintenance after a few years. They also bring wellbeing to employees and local residents who prefer to see birds from their windows rather than the regular passage of lawnmowers. Neglected areas, agricultural or industrial wastelands are also privileged places where companies and communities can set up forest ecosystems.

Nothing today requires economic players to go in this direction, apart of course from the desire to contribute to the restoration of ecosystems and the climate emergency. But with a European policy that plans to strengthen its legal framework for the restoration of nature from 2021 onwards, there is a good chance that regulatory constraints await us at the turning point – and that companies and local authorities that have already taken this leap will have a head start in the regenerative economy of tomorrow.

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Related topics:
ForestsCircular EconomyEnergy Transition
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