As we tackle the ongoing challenges of urbanisation, global population growth and climate change, forests are more relevant today than ever. From renewable biomaterials to mitigating climate change, forests offer solutions to many wicked problems, and expectations of what they can deliver have only increased.
European forestry officials see the increased attention as a positive development, because it shows that people are now realising the important role that forests play for our overall wellbeing.
“The experts know very well that forests have multiple functions and yield products offering solutions to many problems. However, more needs to be done to make people outside the sector aware of these opportunities and solutions,” says Aljoscha Requardt, Policy Advisor at the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
Requardt and other senior forest officials from EU member countries visited Finland in September for an informal EU forest directors-general meeting. The EU does not have a common forest policy, but the meeting, held once every EU presidency, provides an opportunity to exchange views and information on national and European forest issues.
What to plant for the future?
Climate change and the bioeconomy are currently two major themes discussed across the board in the EU. Forests and wood capture and store carbon dioxide (CO2), a key greenhouse gas causing global warming. Yet forests themselves need to be resilient enough in order to continue providing important ecosystem services as well as generate economic resources and other opportunities for society.
“The importance of forests in mitigating climate change and the need to adapt them to altered climatic conditions is a baseline of all our policies,” says Nuno Sequeira, Member of the Board at Portugal’s Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests.
This point has been on the table in Germany, where unusually dry and hot summers in recent years have left trees vulnerable to bark beetle infestation. The situation is comparable to the forest decline caused by acid rain in the 1980s.
“This time the problems are likely rooted in climate change, so finding solutions and answers is more complicated,” says Requardt. “What is needed now is more research into what to plant for the future.”
For Fanny-Pomme Langue, Secretary General at the Confederation of European Forest Owners (CEPF), the key to ensuring that forests can meet different societal expectations, first among them mitigation of climate change, lies in sustainable forest management, which encompasses economic, social as well as environmental aspects.
“I believe the forests can deliver many of the benefits expected from them, including carbon sequestration and storage and biodiversity conservation, thanks to sustainable and multifunctional forest management carried out by forest owners on a daily basis,” Langue says.
“If we want forests to play a key role in climate change mitigation, we need to acknowledge and support the role of forest owners in managing their forests and making these forests more resilient in the future,” she adds.
The bioeconomy shift
There are many ways in which the forests can help us on a path towards a more sustainable future. Renewable wood-based materials can replace fossil fuels and other carbon-intensive materials, such as transport fuels, plastics, textiles and construction products.
Besides being a bioeconomy forerunner, Finland has also been at the forefront of developing responsible and efficient forest management practices, allowing forests to grow longer while also preventing forest fires and damage. Despite growth in the use of wood resources, Finland’s forest reserves are today larger than ever.
“New investments have revitalised the forest industry in recent years. We have a large carbon sink in our forests, and we use less than we grow. Forests also have other forms of intangible value. Many Finns like to go hiking, picking berries, mushrooming or hunting, all of which are good for physical and mental health,” explains Juha Niemelä, Director-General of the Natural Resources Department at the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
Finland has also promoted the importance of forests in the EU. During its presidency, Finland has now started preparations for a new strategy to replace the current one, which is valid until 2020.
“Forestry policy is decided on a national basis, but the sector is also affected by other spheres of Europewide legislation, such as EU climate, energy and finance policy. We need to analyse carefully whether a strategy paper is a powerful enough tool for responding to this new situation, Niemelä says.
Text: Janne Suokas
Photography: UPM; Janne Lehtinen