The launch today of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy could be a landmark moment for European forests. As well as headline targets to protect land and sea areas, the Strategy foresees binding restoration targets and measures in 2021, strict protection of old-growth forests, and guidelines for management practices that respect biodiversity objectives.
Kelsey Perlman, climate campaigner at Forest and Rights NGO Fern, said:
“The Biodiversity Strategy has the ambition to address the huge challenges European forests face, while helping them respond to the twin biodiversity and climate crises. The proposed measures would allow nature to flourish while enabling EU land to absorb more carbon dioxide. We will watch closely to ensure this ambition becomes law.”
Eighty per cent of EU forests with protected status are in an "unfavourable" or "bad" condition, and unprotected forests fare even worse. An area larger than Greece (14.5 million hectares) is covered by plantations that are vulnerable to climate change and fires. If current management practices continue, by 2050 EU forests will only be able to remove half of the carbon they presently do.
NGOs including Fern have long campaigned for better protection of European forests, but the EU has not taken such calls seriously until now. Although it put EU biodiversity targets in place for 2020, they were not binding, and have mainly been ignored. But the Commission is now proposing something different. Important proposals in the Biodiversity Strategy include:
- For the first time, from 2021 there would be binding EU nature restorations targets to restore healthy and resilient ecosystems, including carbon-rich old-growth and primary forests.
- At least 30 per cent of EU land would be legally protected, with 10 per cent under strict protection. All remaining EU primary and old-growth forests would be defined, mapped, monitored, and protected.
- Guidelines on biodiversity friendly afforestation, reforestation, and closer-to-nature forestry practices.
- A roadmap to plant three billion new trees by 2030, in full respect with ecological principles.
- A biomass assessment by the end of this year to inform the review of the Clean Energy Package and align bioenergy with the increased climate and biodiversity ambition set out in the European Green Deal.
To reverse biodiversity loss, forests must be protected and restored. Civil society and scientists have therefore raised concerns about the recent attention given to tree-planting ambitions.
Kelsey Perlman added: “There is a real danger that the proposal to plant three billion trees by 2030 draws attention away from protecting and restoring existing forests or becomes an excuse to expand monoculture plantations that reduce biodiversity and do little for the climate. The principle of “biodiversity first” should guide any future activity or initiative.”
The Biodiversity Strategy is just one EU policy tool to address the state of European forests. Others will also have to be improved to deal with NGOs’ long-raised concerns about the dire consequences of recent increased demand for forest biomass.
“The Strategy will only work if the EU also takes a critical look at its reliance on forest biomass to produce renewable energy. As such, the planned autumn review of climate legislation should consider the negative impact that increasing reliance on bioenergy has had on forests and the climate and find ways to address this,” concluded Perlman.
This Strategy also serves as the EU’s ‘opening position’ on the post 2030 global biodiversity framework. This Strategy is the first major piece of policy to come out of the EU since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the bloc, and as such it is a strong signal that COVID has not weakened the EU’s environmental ambition and that it will hold an ambitious position at international negotiations on 2030 Conference on Biological Diversity (CBD) targets.
Unfortunately, despite its overall ambitious tone, the proposals are weak on how the EU will mitigate the impact of its trade practices on forests.
The Strategy does mention a new enforcement function in the guise of a Chief Trade Enforcement Officer to ensure trade policies are sustainable, but there is no suggestion of making fundamental changes to Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapters of Free Trade Agreements to make them effective.
Fern’s trade campaigner Perrine Fournier said: "The Chief Trade Enforcement Officer is not the tooth fairy: unless fundamental changes are made to make Trade and Sustainable Development commitments specific and enforceable, the Enforcement Officer will have little bite.”
NGOs in countries with whom the EU is concluding a Free Trade Agreement, such as Brazil, (as part of Mercosur bloc) are clear that the EU needs be stronger with trading counterparts like President Bolsonaro if they want to ensure that EU Trade is sustainable. The Strategy states that the EU will assess the impact that trade agreements have on biodiversity and will take follow up action to “strengthen the biodiversity provisions of existing and new agreements if relevant.”
Fournier added: “If the Commission wants to strengthen sustainability of EU trade, it should take the cue from recent proposals by France and the Netherlands that propose concrete measures such as suspension of preferential tariffs in case of breaches of sustainable provisions.”