The total area of forests ‘clear-cut’ harvested in the EU in 2016-2018 was 49% higher than in 2011-2015, according to a JRC study published in Nature.
In terms of total biomass harvested (measured in tonnes per hectare), this equates to a 69% increase.
The scientists analysed satellite data to detect this abrupt and previously unreported increase.
It can help EU countries and policymakers to continue to strike the right balance between wood production and other important forest services.
The authors identify three possible drivers of the increase:
- the growing share of forests used for wood production which are reaching harvesting maturity';
- an increase in salvage logging following the rise in natural disturbances (pest, diseases and more extreme weather events caused by climate change);
- the recent expansion of the wood markets, indicated by econometric indicators on forestry, wood-based bioenergy and international trade.
When integrated with the forestry biomass production data from the JRC biomass study it emerges that the wood harvested in the EU, despite the observed increase in the period 2016-2018, is less than the new wood grown. Both the land area covered by forests and the total woody biomass in the EU are increasing.
Study shows where, how and which forests are harvested
The study found the 2016-2018 EU forest harvested area and biomass to be located in seven EU countries: Sweden (29%), Finland (22%), Poland (9%), France (6%), Latvia (4%), Germany (4%) and Spain (4%).
Harvesting occurs mostly in large patches (greater than 7.2 hectares). Overall, the gap in forest cover created by cutting operations increased by 34% (in 2016-2018 compared to 2011-2015) across the EU.
Needleleaf forests account for half of the total EU harvest. The largest increase in harvested area occurred in forests with more than 50 tonnes per hectare of biomass – their economic value and their maturity are likely the principal motivations for the harvest.
The importance of forests and striking the right balance
The world’s forests host 80% of biodiversity on land, support the livelihoods of around a quarter of the world’s population, and are vital to our efforts to fight climate change. However, forests are under threat, through deforestation and forest degradation.
The European Green Deal commits the EU to improving its forested area, both in quality and quantity, and to fighting global deforestation linked to the EU’s footprint.
The EU Bioeconomy Strategy promotes a sustainable and circular bioeconomy that values natural resources, diminishes environmental pressures and increases the use of sustainable renewable products, to restore and enhance ecosystem functions and biodiversity.
A sustainable bioeconomy presents new opportunities for green growth in view of replacing non-sustainable raw materials in construction, textiles, furniture and chemicals, and creating new business models based on the valuation of forestry ecosystem services.
The new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 requires the EU to increase its forests in quantity and improve their health and resilience.
Building on the Biodiversity Strategy, the Commission will prepare in 2021 a new EU Forest Strategy covering the whole forest cycle and promoting the many services that forests provide. Key objectives will be effective afforestation and forest preservation and restoration in Europe.
Forest ecosystems are crucial for biodiversity and important ‘carbon sinks’ – they absorb CO2, lowering its concentration in the atmosphere.
Efforts for their conservation are key for the EU’s vision to become the world’s first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 and to improve biodiversity.
However, the increasing pressure on forest services and products is posing new challenges to sustainable forest management.
This study provides data to help further understand these pressures, and design and implement the right policies to balance them sustainably.
Harvesting the data: cloud-computing and high resolution satellites
The study makes use of a combination of high-resolution satellite records and cloud-computing infrastructures capable of handling big data.
These technologies support forest monitoring that is independent from official statistics and overcomes some of the limitations of national inventories. Further analyses of the causes that have been driving the increased harvest will be necessary.
In particular, the EU’s Copernicus earth observation programme provides a unique European monitoring capacity.
The European Copernicus Sentinels missions are interoperable with the NASA Landsat satellite. They provide high-resolution imagery under “free, full and open” licenses, further increasing data availability for monitoring forest management.