EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy could hamper forests' contribution to sustainable development

Anna Holmberg and Mårten Larsson from the Swedish Forest Industries explain why more emphasis should be put on sustainable forest management to maintain and enhance biodiversity.


Q: What does the EU's 2030 Biodiversity Strategy mean for forests?

Anna Holmberg: The targets to legally protect at least 30% of the EU's land area and to strictly protect at least a third of this will result in more forest being set aside and less being available to contribute to sustainable development's economic and social as well as environmental goals.

The European Green Deal aims to create "a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use". Less managed forest will hinder the Union's ability to reach this goal. In the long run, it could turn foresters and farmers from heroes into has-beens, and reward production abroad.

Mårten Larsson: There is a global biodiversity crisis, no question about it. This, together with the COVID-19 crisis, is used to argue that nature should be given more space. We would have expected a more tailored approach to European forests, which are in a better state than the global average.

The Strategy jumps from the global context to a number of targets for Europe, whose impacts have yet to be thoroughly assessed from an environmental, economic and social perspective. The EU should inspire and lead on sustainability, but with this Strategy it risks diminishing the forest sector's contribution.

Q: What are the big battles ahead?

Anna: One of the main challenges we see is getting clarity and agreement on several core terms in the Strategy, such as "legally protected", "old-growth forests" and "closer-to-nature-forestry". We need established, science-based definitions that are implemented consistently across Member States. Otherwise we risk endless debates between different stakeholders.

Mårten: Biodiversity is one of three cornerstones of sustainable forest management. Forest owners from private individuals to large companies have integrated biodiversity measures into their management for decades. This must be recognised as contributing to the Strategy's objectives.

In parallel, the definitions of "old-growth forests" and "closer-to-nature-forestry" must take into account the huge differences within the Union in forest types and ownership, and national forest policies. For example, closer-to-nature forestry - a form of continuous cover forestry - does not work in the north of Europe. It was tried in Sweden in the 1920s and 30s and regeneration was poor and almost entirely of spruce. Instead of pushing for uniform management methods, the EU should encourage measures adapted to regional conditions.

Q: How does sustainable forest management maintain or enhance forest biodiversity?

Mårten: The largest challenge forests face is climate change. There is a misconception in the Strategy that primary and old growth forests remove carbon from the atmosphere. They do not. They contain a lot of carbon, but old trees will not absorb as much CO2 as younger, faster-growing trees. We need to manage our forests actively and also plant more robust trees that are adapted to future climactic conditions. This is what we do in sustainable forest management.

At the same time, we promote biodiversity in our everyday care for the forest. Leaving dead wood, larger broad-leaved trees, and tall stumps, as well as setting aside valuable areas, create structures of primary importance for biodiversity. Five percent of Sweden's forests are exempted from management on a voluntary basis to preserve and promote biodiversity under forest certification schemes. This must count towards the target for strictly protected forests.

The crucial point of sustainable forest management is that you have an economic operation that also takes social and environmental considerations into account. If you formally set aside ever larger areas, you reduce a forester's ability to work towards these multiple goals.

Anna: The Strategy states that biodiversity fares better in protected areas, but we argue that is too narrow a way of thinking. Good forest management actually reduces the need for formal protection.

Q: Do you see a basis for economic as well as biodiversity recovery in the new Strategy?

Anna: The Strategy is one of the first European Green Deal policies published by the European Commission since the pandemic began. The vast majority of Member States and many other stakeholders have asked for the EU economic recovery and the Green Deal to go hand in hand, but we cannot see that the Strategy has been adapted to the new context.

We would have expected much stronger acknowledgement on two fronts: that sustainable forest management is essential to maintain and enhance biodiversity, and that forests and forest-based products will be important in the economic recovery.

Mårten: As it stands, the Biodiversity Strategy risks increasing tensions between urban and rural areas. After reading it, it is clear to us that the importance of the upcoming revision of the EU Forest Strategy in 2021 has increased immensely. That Strategy must apply a holistic perspective to all EU policies affecting forests. More protected areas and dedicated carbon sinks are not conducive to job creation nor a fair and prosperous society.