Timber Harvesting and Climate Change Are Depleting Europe’s Mature Forests
A recent analysis found that tall, mature forests — which are critical for storing carbon and safeguarding biodiversity — are declining significantly in some parts of Europe. This is primarily due to a rise in timber harvesting as well as natural disturbances, such as wildfires and pests, which are often exacerbated by climate change.
There was some good news as well. The study, from the University of Maryland and WRI in partnership with European researchers, shows that Europe’s total tree cover increased slightly over the last two decades. But that’s not the full story: Some regions within Europe saw significant declines in forest area. And the total amount of tall forests (forests with trees taller than 15 meters) declined by 2.25 million hectares — an area half the size of Denmark. The decline was highest in Nordic countries, which saw a 20% reduction in tall forests, followed by areas in Southeastern Europe. While tall forests have often been replaced with new trees, these can take decades to mature to the point where they provide equivalent climate and ecosystem benefits, meaning overall forest health in these areas is being reduced.
These findings underscore the need for ambitious action on the part of EU countries to protect and maintain existing forests and the vital services they provide. Progress is underway, with a number of new laws aimed at curbing deforestation and forest degradation. But to be successful, these must be informed by timely, robust data on forest health and disturbances. The proposed EU Forest Monitoring Framework, issued on November 22, 2023, should support these efforts by ensuring harmonized and improved forest monitoring in Europe — if it mandates comparable and consistent reporting on key forest health indicators throughout the EU.
Europe Lost 2.25 Million Hectares of Tall Forests From 2001-2021
Between 2001 and 2021, Europe experienced a small net gain in tree cover of around 1%, or 1.5 million hectares. With tree cover declining in almost all other areas around the world, this is an important achievement. But despite this overall gain, the findings also show that Europe’s tall forests declined by 3%, or 2.25 million hectares, over the same period. Tall forests were disproportionately affected by an acceleration of forest disturbance in recent years, including both harvesting activities and natural disturbances.
The analysis shows strong variability between regions, with some experiencing significant losses in forest area while others saw more gains. The Nordic region (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland) saw the biggest declines, losing 3.5% of its total forests and 20% of its tall forests over the last two decades.
The vast majority (around 87%) of tree cover loss was due to intensive timber harvesting — which can take the form of direct felling or salvage logging after a disturbance — as well as natural disturbances like wildfires and insect outbreaks, which are increasing in extent and severity due to climate change.
Most tree cover loss will be temporary as new forest growth in Europe is largely compensating for forest loss in terms of area alone. But tall forests are being cleared at a faster rate than new forests can regrow, leading to a gradual decline in forest height and a reduction of forest services such as carbon storage over time. So while Europe isn’t losing tree cover overall, the health of its forests is declining.
This decline in Europe’s tall forests is a sign that timber harvesting may already exceed rates that can be sustained into the future. With global demand for timber expected to grow in the coming decades, Europe should heed this warning and take action to avoid running down its precious forest assets.
Why Are Tall Forests So Important?
While most forests in Europe have been intensively managed by humans for centuries, these forests still provide immense value for people and nature.
For one, the carbon storage capacity of trees increases with height and age, meaning the loss of tall trees and a resulting shift toward shorter, younger trees reduces the carbon storage capacity of Europe’s forests. While the full carbon picture is complicated (for example, young forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere at a faster rate than older standing forests), protecting mature forests is critical for curbing climate change.
These tall forests also include many of Europe’s old growth forests, which take centuries to grow and cannot be replaced by young, regrowing forests. Old growth forests play a key role in climate change mitigation by storing large quantities of carbon both in their biomass and in their soil. They provide ecosystem services like protecting soil health and regulating water drainage, and act as a critical refuge for wildlife and biodiversity. They are also a valuable part of cultural heritage for European communities and nations.
Further, even though the last two decades saw a slight increase in tree cover in Europe overall, much of this increase is due to expansion of tree plantations — specifically plantations of non-native tree species such as eucalyptus, black locust and Sitka spruce. This likely has negative consequences for ecosystems, such as reduced diversity and abundance of plants and animals, particularly where more diverse natural forests are replaced by monoculture plantations.
New EU Regulations Could Curb Forest Degradation, but Improved Monitoring Is Needed
Europe is working to improve forest management and address its contribution to forest loss worldwide through a number of new and developing laws and strategies. These include:
- The EU Forest Strategy for 2030: A strategy to improve the quantity and quality of EU forests and strengthen their protection, restoration and resilience.
- The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: A comprehensive long-term plan to protect nature and reverse ecosystem degradation in the EU.
- The proposed Nature Restoration Law: A binding regulation to restore nature, including putting restoration measures in place for at least 20% of the EU’s land areas and 20% of its seas by 2030.
- The EU Deforestation Regulation: A binding regulation to ensure that certain commodities exported to or placed on the EU market are deforestation free.
These initiatives show progress is moving in the right direction, but they must be supported by improved monitoring and transparency to be most effective. This is the aim of the proposed Forest Monitoring Framework — a regulatory initiative to ensure that European member states provide detailed, robust and timely information on the condition and management of EU forests, including indicators on their health, quality and trends over time.
With better monitoring, Europe will be able to assess whether its forests are managed sustainably, evaluate the ability of forests to contribute to climate change mitigation and identify priority forests to protect. Monitoring efforts under the framework must be harmonized to allow comparison and understanding across the EU, meaning countries should be responsible for reporting on the same set of indicators. They should also be transparent to encourage public accountability and timely to enable data-based decision making on appropriate time scales.
Forests are crucial to fighting climate change and to protecting ecosystems and biodiversity. To maximize their potential, Europe should look deeper into its forests. Satellite monitoring and data products, like the ones used in this study or through the open-source Global Forest Watch, combined with ground-based measurements can support implementation of the Forest Monitoring Framework Regulation and help ensure all of Europe’s forests are on the right track.