The EU Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) recent assessment of forest ecosystems shows that one third of European forests assessed are in decline; EU forest ecosystems require restoration, improved forest management and extended periods of recovery to approach natural conditions. Scientists agree that healthy forests are crucial to climate and biodiversity solutions. As fires and droughts have so desperately underscored all summer, and with the costs of inaction being borne by us all, it is hoped the JRC research will underpin a strong EU approach to both the Nature Restoration Law and the promised Forest Monitoring Law.
Using a United Nations global statistical standard on ecosystem accounting, the JRC study’s findings were “signalled by a reduction in soil organic carbon, tree cover density and species richness of threatened birds” – critical indicators now under discussion in the proposed Nature Restoration Law (NRL). After an unhelpful bout of political posturing (FW 287), and thanks to EPP members brave enough to break ranks, a weakened NRL narrowly escaped being scrapped in the European Parliament in July 2023 and now heads into Trilogues where, unusually, the Council’s text is stronger than Parliament’s version. It would be judicious for the Council to bring its obstinate best to negotiations, to ensure that the legislative text that emerges, likely by year’s end, is robust.
But interpreting research results is a complex exercise, and what is selected for measurement can determine the conclusions reached – highlighting the importance of advancing the comprehensive Forest Monitoring Law, now expected before the end of this Commission’s mandate.
The JRC acknowledges that its criteria are imperfect and the picture presented, incomplete: certain key indicators – e.g., dead wood, forest tree species richness, defoliation, tree growth, age structure – are missing due to lack of available data. Conversely, other indicators such as connectivity or tree coverage, paint a rosier picture of Europe’s forests. For instance, taken out of context, the conclusion that “productivity and connectivity are comparable to levels observed in undisturbed or least disturbed forests” may sound positive – but this says nothing about the difference in overall diversity.
Likewise, ecosystems accounts, a statistical framework for organising data about habitats, must be regularly updated to offer data over time. Without such data, comparison is impossible, precluding a true picture of biodiversity or functional ecosystem characteristics.
Nor is the impact of forest management adequately accounted for in the study. Practical guidance is needed about how to incorporate forest management in accounting for forest condition – for instance, by using indicators that capture forest traits sensitive to management, such as tree species composition, age structure or amount of deadwood.
Primary and old-growth forests require more dedicated attention in updated ecosystem accounting rules. Given how crucial these complex ecosystems are and how few remain in Europe, indicators must go beyond examining the bird species that need them to survive, and examine the impacts of losing these ecosystems outright.
Such critical omissions keep the picture vague, playing to the interests of forest companies entrenched in business-as-usual and undermining those foresters trying to move towards closer-to-nature forest management. Even with key indicators missing from the study, the need for restoration is obvious, but accurate and encompassing forest monitoring could make restoration more targeted and effective and avoid wasted effort.