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Will 2021 be the year for forests? Implications of the upcoming EU Forest Strategy and other frameworks on forest ecosystem services

As the days grow shorter and colder, we are reminded that the final days of 2020 are just on the horizon, leaving us to reflect on the past year and make our hopes and aspirations for the following. But because we are people with a shared passion, we also make reflections and aspirations for our forests. With recent key EU policy frameworks such as the new Green Deal, Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 and the upcoming Forest Strategy, some questions might be on our minds. What are the implications of these new policies for the provision of forest ecosystem services (FES)? And what do representatives from policy, research, nature conservation as well as forest owners and managers consider to be essential in the Forest Strategy? On 7th December, the SINCERE Talks series jointly with the European Integrate Network produced the webinar “Towards an EU policy framework for forest ecosystem services – reflecting on 2020, exploring 2021” which provided a unique and exciting space to discuss these topics.

Keen to involve participants as soon as possible, the webinar opened with a poll asking participants to share their thoughts on the currently evolving new EU policy framework for FES post 2020. The results captured the breadth of different perceptions of the participants and also some contrasting opinions. The majority 28% of participants admitted they did not know enough about the subject to make a selection, an encouraging sign of motivation to learn more. Some results pointed to contrasting opinions with 22% answering “it will result in new opportunities to align sector perspectives and support and fund forest management for multiple forest ecosystems” compared to 18% answering “it will be inconsistent, with different sectors pushing for different objectives”. This contrast between the perceptions was a hint of the lively debate to come in the panel discussion. 

Perspectives of the European Commission: EU Biodiversity Strategy, Green Deal, and Forest Strategy

But before diving straight into the debate, participants and panellists were given the chance to reflect on 2020 with an overview of forests and FES in the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 with a presentation by Andrea Vettori (DG Environment, European Commission) Andrea highlighted how protecting nature is an essential part of the new EU Green Deal and how this is especially important given that half of global GDP is linked to nature. He explained the four elements of the Strategy: Protect, Restore, Enable Transformative Change, and EU for an Ambitious Global Agenda, and finally, how forests fit into these four elements. Under the protect element the Strategy calls for the protection of 30% of EU land and sea. Within this 30%, Andrea emphasised it will be crucial to include all of the EU’s primary and old-growth forests. Within the second element, restore, there is also an objective to plant to plant 3 billion additional trees. This will include a special focus on cities because of the importance of trees for air quality and other benefits. 

Andrea Vettori (DG Environment) presents the importance of biodiversity for achieving SDGs

Andrea explained that the Strategy also contains many other provisions of forests including the necessary role of foresters to ensure sustainable forest management, and the need to continue and further develop practices such as closer-to-nature forestry. It is clear that the Strategy also pays close attention to FES with an analytical framework being set up at EU level for a more harmonised approach. Andrea concluded by pointing out the objective to actively involve all stakeholders under the EU for an Ambitious Global Agenda element, which served as a reminder that the webinar also provided a space for the sharing of different stakeholders perspectives and how we should take these into account when moving forward.

Participants then looked to the future of FES with a presentation of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the EU Forest Strategy by Alfonso Gutiérrez Teira (DG Agriculture and Rural Development, European Commission). He explained the new CAP strategy will have a new architecture which details so-called “forest interventions” that are less restrictive and more relevant than before. There are several interventions, some linked to environmental, climate, and other management commitments, while others are related to investments that contribute to CAP Specific Objectives. The idea is that member states can now make these forest interventions bearing in mind some light conditions. Forests will also have a role in the new Eco-Schemes, a highlight of the new CAP. For example, an Eco-Scheme related to agroforestry could be a potential option for member states to utilise.

Moving on to the much anticipated EU Forest Strategy coming in the early months of next year, Alfonso outlined the Forest Strategy Roadmap. He explained that the Strategy will include a prominent role for FES, and will specifically aim to achieve forest-based services and products with low environmental impact, improve and harmonise the monitoring of forests and supply and demand of FES, and finally foster financial incentives such as payments for ecosystem services (PES). With reflections made and a good overview of the future, participants were now geared up for the debate and discussion.

Alfonso Gutiérrez Teira (DG Agriculture and Rural Development) presents the Forest Strategy Roadmap

Forest ecosystem services – how can European forests serve best our multiple demands?

Panellists were invited to contribute to the debate with short presentations, beginning with Fanny-Pomme Langue at the Confederation of European Forest Owners (CEPF), which represents 16 million private forest owners covering around 60% forest land in Europe. Fanny reiterated that there is a huge diversity of FES and their provision does not come without a cost. She stated that she sees a lean toward a more segregated and mandatory approach, whereas CEPF would prefer to see a more integrative and voluntary one post 2020. When asked what changes are needed in 2021, she called for more holistic views, a voluntary and bottom-up approach, and a thorough evaluation of the costs of the provision of FES.

Moving then from private forests to state forests, we heard from Piotr Borkowski at the European State Forest Association (EUSTAFOR). Piotr emphasised that management of state forests is a management of interests over interests. He also highlighted the importance of the inclusion of forestry in the open market because he believes it is crucial for delivering all FES. For the future, Piotr says there needs to be a single framework instead of multiple fragmented approaches. He argued that targets should be robust and ambitious, but realistic and feasible and finally policy planning should occur on a solid financial basis, where forestry is not reliant on subsidies.

We then heard from the perspective of the Environmental NGO Fern with Julia Christian’s quick overview of the state of Europe’s forests which she supported with data from the EEA, such as the State of Nature in the EU 2020 Report, as well as the European Commission. Julia urged that European forests are in crisis due to projected decline of forest carbon storage and substantial biodiversity loss, which is occurring even in protected areas. The reason for these unsettling changes she explained are due to forestry activities, such as logging, clear cutting, and removal of dead trees. While the reason for an increased harvesting is not yet completely understood, it may be linked to an increase demand of biomass for energy which Julia related to EU climate targets.

In the final opening statement from the panellists, we heard from Tomáš Krejzar representing the European Network Integrate. Like Fanny, Tomáš expressed concern over the trend toward a segregated approach which he said poses a threat to integrated forest management. He expressed that in the future, he sees a need to enable the environment for the provisions and payments of ecosystem services. Overall, Tomáš believes that the new EU framework will provide more opportunities than threats to integrated forest management.

Multifunctional approaches, trade-offs, and Christmas wishes for our forests in 2021

With the panellist’s statements finished, Georg Winkel (EFI) jumpstarted the debate with a question to Andrea and Alfonso asking for their view of the importance of the EU’s forests with a multifunctional approach and the key tools to support them. Both Andrea and Alfonso agreed that it is crucial that this type of forest is not forgotten, and that with support from the Natura-2000 Network, the Habitats Directive, and CAP we must develop common principles and approaches but also adapt to the local situation given the large diversity of FES.

After the opening question, participants were then excited to join in and a discussion started over the consideration of forests outside the EU in the framework of the Green Deal. Fanny advocated that biomass for energy in the EU should preferably come from EU wood sources and there should be no trade-offs in importing wood from non-EU countries. Julia shared her support of a strong regulation to ensure that products imported from the EU are not related to deforestation and human rights issues and called for a larger discussion if this is the case.  

Available options to raise standards for sustainable forest management in private forests was then brought to the discussion table. Julia advocated for PES as a key tool for sustainable forest management but said this should be mandatory and not voluntary. Andrea then contributed that we need to prove the effectiveness of sustainable forest management. Although the panellists and participants were eager discuss further, the webinar was near its end and Piotr closed the final discussion with his point that we must reflect on the sustainable forest management practices that we already have in stock before trying to move somewhere else with it.  

As a finale, the panellists were given one last opportunity to share their perspective by contributing their “Christmas wishes” for the upcoming EU Forest Strategy. On Fanny’s list was the proper evaluation of the work needed to protect FES, while Tomáš wished for more flexibility for member states and forest managers. Julia had three wishes on her list, including the review of the renewable energy directive, a target to restore Europe’s forests, and a vision of just transition for forestry in Europe. Finally, Piotr reminded that the EU is for all of us and therefore he wished that the strategy will be developed with all stakeholders in mind. On this point, Alfonso closed with a promise to do their best to ensure that the Forest Strategy will engage all stakeholders. Finally, he stressed the importance of working together to achieve shared goals for our forests.

You can watch a recording of the webinar here.

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