Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to warmly welcome you to our conference on the role of forests in shaping the future of Europe.
Forests are at the heart of our European natural heritage; they are a part of who we are. So many of our treasured stories and myths are based in the forest, meaning that from a young age, every European learns to appreciate trees and forests as a part of our shared European identity.
With forestry, it is important to be able to see the wood for the trees, and this conference comes at crucial time. I think there is a renewed appreciation in the public consciousness of the benefits of our forests to society as a whole, because they are a key part of the answer to the great question of our time. And that question, of course, is: how can we stop climate change?
But of course, forests are multifunctional and hold enormous importance from an environmental, cultural, social and economic point of view also.
So, for once, it is welcome to have a series of wooden speeches here in Brussels!
This conference gives us the opportunity to look back at what the Juncker Commission has done on forests, and to look ahead and discuss what the next challenges and opportunities are.
The good news is that, despite the worrying global picture, forests have been expanding in the EU and currently cover 43% of the EU’s land area.
And, we also know that forests play an increasingly important role in multiple policy priorities:
they have a strong mitigation effect on climate change;
they have huge potential in shaping the new bioeconomy;
they play a protective role in our environment;
they are home to an unaccountable number of species and habitats;
and they provide a vital source of income for rural communities.
During the mandate of this Commission, forests have been included in a very mindful and coherent way in the EU policy framework, respecting the principle of subsidiarity and addressing the many different functions of forests.
Let me mention a few examples.
Only a few months ago, in December, the Commission adopted its Report to the Parliament and the Council on the mid-term review of the EU Forest Strategy
This Strategy is the Commission’s policy framework to address the issues I outlined.
The review takes stock of the Strategy’s achievements to date which, I can say, have been significant. We made substantial progress in addressing all the Strategy’s priority areas, judging by the fact that about 90% of the planned actions have been completed or are ongoing as planned.
And of course the EU is disbursing a significant amount of financial resources for forests and the forest-based sector, in support of these objectives.
Future of CAP
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) continues to be the main source of financial support for EU forests. 90% of our Rural Development Programmes address the needs of forests, with a planned public expenditure for 2014-2020 of about 8 billion EUR.
Under the Commission’s proposal for the future CAP, Member States will have more freedom to tailor forestry interventions to the local needs of their forest sector and the specificities of their rural areas.
This freedom will allow Member States to focus on their bioeconomies and to help them meet the higher environmental and climate ambition of the future policy. The forest sector will need to be prepared for this challenge and prepared also to take full advantage of these new opportunities.
The “1 hectare initiative”
But let me flag one concrete idea I would like to launch as a new initiative: Let me call it the “1 hectare initiative” supported through the CAP.
Under their future CAP Strategic Plans, Member States will have the option to reward farmers with payments per farm for the afforestation of one hectare. Under the condition that the afforestation is done in a biodiversity-friendly way combining climate and environmental objectives.
This initiative can be programmed through pillar 2 funding under the CAP and could help Member States to meet their climate and biodiversity objectives. It is another practical example of farmers providing public goods with public support.
In order to limit the administrative burden for beneficiaries and public authorities a lump-sum payment per year and per hectare could be offered to each participating farmer over the next seven year period.
The afforested plot could be either marginal land or in between big fields where biodiversity and diverse landscape elements would be needed.
A widespread territorial distribution of the “1 hectare initiative” could contribute to the creation of valuable ecosystem services, such as water retention, flood and soil erosion control. It would also provide significant biodiversity benefits, such as shelter and connectivity, and thereby could be very effective in delivering environmental and climate benefits.
I hope you like the idea – the future CAP provides the opportunity, but the political will to implement this initiative must come from the Member States. Hence, I hope you will spread the word.
The Bioeconomy Strategy
On 11 October 2018, the Commission has put forward an action plan to develop a sustainable and circular bioeconomy that serves Europe’s society, environment and economy.
The new bioeconomy strategy is part of the Commission’s drive to boost jobs, growth and investment in the EU. It aims to improve and scale up the sustainable use of renewable resources to address global and local challenges such as climate change and sustainable development.
Let me now briefly make a few remarks on the sessions and the program of our two-day conference:
Link to session 1 (Innovation, growth, jobs, bioeconomy)
The mid-term review of the EU Forest Strategy revealed the large support we are providing to research, development, and innovation in the sector. Since 2007, EU-funded research has supported about 500 forest-based projects, and Horizon 2020 alone is expected to spend over EUR 500 million on the forest-based sector.
The future Horizon Europe programme will further enhance funding opportunities in research and innovation for forests and the forest-based sector, notably to develop the bioeconomy.
According to industry estimates, new and innovative bio-based industries are projected to generate one million additional jobs by 2030, many of them in rural areas where they are urgently needed.
A sustainable bioeconomy is also hugely important for reducing emissions in the EU. Let me only give two examples:
Substitution of fossil-based materials like construction materials, plastics or textiles has only started. We have many good examples which will be presented to you, but the potential for further research and innovation in this field in the coming decades is tremendous.
Bioenergy is currently the EU’s largest renewable energy source, and it will make a major contribution to help meet our renewable energy targets of 27% in 2020 and 32% in 2030.
However, we need to step up our joint efforts in developing innovative, more efficient and more sustainable bio-based forms of energy.
The role of forests in the circular economy has also been emphasized recently in the Commission guidance on the cascading use of wood.
Bearing these important developments in mind, the first session offers a good opportunity to further discuss the importance and potential of forests, wood and other materials for the bioeconomy.
Link to sessions 2 & 3 (Paris agreement and health of the Earth)
We must remain mindful of the fact that forests are subject to the dangers of climate change, as well as being part of the climate solution.
The EU has committed itself to ambitious 2030 climate and energy targets, including the goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions by 40% by 2030, based on 1990 levels. Forests and forest-related industries will have a central role to play.
The way we have included the mitigation role of forests through our Regulation on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry is a good example of how this can be done without reducing the economic opportunities of our forests.
And, the sustainable management of our forests will play a central role in achieving our ambitious targets under the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The latest statistics show very worrying global biodiversity trends, and the costs will be paid by future generations, if we do not succeed in stopping them now.
The EU and Member States are making significant efforts to enhance biodiversity conservation, domestically and globally. In the EU, we have set up the Natura 2000 network, the widest biodiversity protection in the world, which occupies 20% of the EU land area. Forests contribute 50% of the total area within the network.
A very high proportion of EU forests are sustainability-certified, and our aim is for all forests to support biodiversity. Some promising figures show increasing numbers of birds, deadwood and other ecological assets in forests, but there is a need to further reinforce our policies to effectively counteract the general negative trends of biodiversity loss, which have many drivers.
In parallel, climate change is a crucial factor affecting the wealth of EU forests. In recent years, there has been extensive damage to European forests in the form of pest outbreaks, forest fires and storms, which affected many Member States.
The EU is providing significant support to Member States to build resilience to climate change, including fires and other disasters affecting forests. Fire and natural disaster prevention account for over 20% of the planned CAP expenditure in forests.
It is widely acknowledged that poor forest management, often linked to rural abandonment and the associated loss of management skills, triggers many catastrophic events, or increases their gravity. The EU Forest Strategy, promoting the sustainable forest management of all of our forests, provides a very important tool to reduce the risks and damages associated with extreme events.
Link to session 4 (protecting forests and sustainable forest management)
The international dimension of the EU Forest Strategy has reaffirmed our global leadership role in promoting sustainable forest management. The policy tools put in place have been fine-tuned and are now delivering concrete results.
EU external policies are becoming more coherent with the EU Forest Strategy, in particular EU development policy, EU external action, and our bilateral trade agreements. In all these areas, the promotion of sustainable forest management, and commitment to combat deforestation illegal logging are becoming a general line of action. The EU is the first donor in development cooperation fostering these objectives.
The EU launched an ambitious Communication on fighting deforestation ten years ago, which aimed at reducing deforestation by 50% by 2020.
However, we are well aware that the EU, alone, will not succeed in this endeavour, as the EU is responsible for roughly 10% of the deforestation linked to trade. We need to build strong alliances with both forested and consumer countries to address the emergency of protecting our forests.
I invite you to reflect and discuss these topics, and others, in the session we will dedicate tomorrow to deforestation.
I would like to conclude by going back to the mid-term review of the EU Forest Strategy, and looking to the future.
The review found that the EU Forest Strategy is effective in strengthening the position of forests and the forest-based sector in meeting the increase in the demand for wood products, as well as their social and environmental services.
Our Strategy is instrumental in reconciling different and sometimes conflicting goals, through the promotion of sustainable forest management, and the exchange of good practice.
It is only with a firm commitment from all of us – Member States, the forest sector, stakeholders and the Commission – that policy tools at European level to address our forests can be effective and valuable.
The Commission is ready and willing to do its share, by working on some specific initiatives and in supporting your efforts. We hope to see a similar willingness and commitment from you.
In conclusion, I wish you all an excellent conference. By working together, we can keep our forests at the heart of our shared European future, where they belong. Thank you.