European Forestry - an Economy of the Future?
Some might think that protecting forests is an expensive luxury requiring huge resources so that we have pretty scenery to look at while driving to the golf course. But the fact is that the forests of Europe are of huge economic importance, and could provide the inspiration for the essential green restructuring of the European economy. There is already big money being made from forests. According to the Confederation of European Forest Owners, the annual turnover of the forest-based industry is €450 billion, contributing 9% to the GDP of the European manufacturing sector. Other goods like Christmas trees, berries, fruit and cork come directly from the forests and are important sources of income for many Europeans. But seeing forests only in terms of their economic significance does not really reflect the true worth of the continent’s forests. European forests also provide essential ecological services to humans, animals and plants everywhere, merely by forming 25% of the world's forests.
The State of Europe’s Forests 2011 report, co-authored by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (FOREST EUROPE), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) describes the European forest sector as being increasingly ecologically and socially sustainable. Such an evaluation is justified in many ways. Europe’s forests are growing - over the last decade they grew by an area the size of Switzerland, so it seems that European forestry is looking at the long-term health of forests rather than short-term gains.
Green Economy in the making?
The State of Europe’s Forests 2011 report indicates that in many ways the forest sector is looking more and more like a ‘Green Economy’. This year, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) described
a Green Economy as “low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive”. “Sustainable development is not a choice but an imperative” UN Under-Secretary General & UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner has said. “A transition to a Green Economy will happen, either by design or default”. The State of Europe’s Forests 2011 report highlighted many aspects in which European forestry is going through this transition, and handling it well. Most of the by-products of the European forest sector are used for energy or other useful products. Berit Hauger Lindstad, Senior Policy Advisor at FOREST EUROPE describes European forestry as a “self-sufficient or even net-producer of energy; and with modern burning technologies having very low releases of pollution”. This puts the forest sector ahead of most areas of the European economy, such as agriculture for example which is still very dependent on fossil fuels.
Mitigating climate change
European forests are an important part of the puzzle when policymakers try to make the continent less of a culprit in the ongoing climate change. “Europe’s growing forests remove 870 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, an amount that equals approximately 10 percent of annual European emissions” Lindstad says. “For the carbon balance, it is also important to highlight that Europe as a net exporter of forest products does not cause a carbon footprint in other regions”. The carbon taken up by forests are both stored in the increasing woodland areas and in long lasting wood products, used both in Europe and elsewhere.
But just focusing on the climate mitigation potentials of the forests risks ignoring other important areas that need attention. “The role of forests in mitigating climate change through sequestration and storage of carbon and in providing renewable energy must be balanced with protection of biodiversity and other important environmental features of forests” Lindstad says.
Putting a price on the priceless
The report points out that many of the services that forests provide are not valued enough, and they have to compete against products whose production causes negative side-effects that are not seen in the price. The parties to FOREST EUROPE have recognized this, and agreed to work further on developing valuation methods as a follow up to the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe in Oslo in June this year. Some such improvements are already in place; some European governments are now starting to pay forest owners for ecological services such as preserving a healthy gene pool or protecting vulnerable soil from erosion. Putting a price on ecosystem service, Lindstad points out, also allows for better informed decisions and makes it easier to assess achievements.
Despite all the gains to be had from putting a price on ecosystem services, this will be a daunting task because of the complex nature of ecosystems and their relationships to the human economy. The current economic climate will make it hard to justify paying tax money for things the public has gotten for free and taken for granted for a long time. It is therefore up to the general public to support such initiatives, and to put the rest of the European economy on the same track as that of the forest sector.