The proposed Forest Monitoring Law is a great step forward, but to truly deliver change on the ground it must also include a requirement for positive strategic action.
Forests are complex and face many diverse pressures. So to know how to best manage and protect them requires precise data, based on agreed definitions. This was the reasoning behind the proposed EU Forest Monitoring Law which the European Commission published on 22 November 2023. Despite efforts by some Member States to weaken and even kill it, the proposal is a strong step forward which must now lead to meaningful action.
The proposed regulation sets up requirements for the EU and Member States to collect data across EU forests, both through satellite and ground monitoring, and to produce a harmonised picture of trends affecting biodiversity and the forestry sector. The Commission will make the data publicly accessible, to civil society who have long struggled to obtain enough information.
The opportunity: The law allows the identification and measurement of progress towards the objectives of the European Green Deal and the EU Forest and Biodiversity Strategies. It also prevents worrisome forest trends from quietly dropping through the cracks (FW 289, FW 288). Of particular importance are the mapping and protection of old-growth forests and the tracking and identifying of illegal or destructive logging activities.
Such monitoring should allow a real-time assessment of what is causing biodiversity decline, which areas should be protected and restored in priority, how employment is changing and whether public money is being well spent in the sector. Negative trends are observed in many of these areas, but an EU-wide picture has been obscured by those claiming EU overreach into the sector.
A battle not yet won: While most stakeholders recognise the importance of better data, some countries and industry groups are nervous about what the proposal might reveal. Sweden and Finland immediately raised contradictory concerns – claiming both that they already had the necessary data, and that they lacked information about old-growth forests (despite this being an objective highlighted under the EU Forest Strategy). Although a map has already been produced which identifies these territories and more (FW 290), governments argue that showing where these few remaining forests lie would be too complex.
This comes at a time when forests with 400-year-old trees continue to be logged, and the companies at fault get away with an easy apology.
Member States with the biggest timber industries have been vocal against further EU regulation on monitoring forests, despite the benefits that adequate planning could bring to other sectors of the forest economy, including non-wood products, ecotourism and even the added value that monitoring and planning itself can bring to all these areas. These countries must recognise the wider value of assessing the impacts of timber production, as well as the carbon storage and biodiversity opportunities offered by resilient ecosystems. The Forest Monitoring Law is a clear way to do this.
Significant omissions: One significant omission, however, is the proposal’s failure to include independent, expert oversight of the monitoring, carried out by civil society or scientists. Independent forest monitoring by impartial third parties is already promoted by the EU in its Voluntary Partnership Agreements with tropical partner countries; it is not clear why less is expected of EU Member States.
Similarly, the proposal avoids taking the next logical step: requiring Member States to take positive strategic action on the basis of the data gathered. Instead, it includes a voluntary request for Member States to create strategic plans making use of the data. Several Member States have already demonstrated their unwillingness to do so voluntarily, and want even this request to be struck from the proposal, according to Politico (21 November 2023). Given the lack of consistency in forestry planning across Member States, where the development of timber production has hindered achievement of EU biodiversity objectives, such strategic planning is necessary to realise sustainable forestry in Europe.
The Commission must not allow political manoeuvring to diminish the opportunity that this Law offers to uphold climate and biodiversity ambition, and to support foresters who take a more sustainable approach. The European Parliament has not yet designated rapporteurs, but a timeline will need to be quickly provided to advance as much as possible before the legislative pause that precedes the European elections in June.