Why is it important to protect forests?
Forests are indispensable. They are our life-support system. The air we breathe is from forests, we rely on forests for foods, biodiversity, energy and more. Protecting and restoring world's forests is crucial for maintaining and increasing human well-being and putting our societies on to a sustainable path.
Forests cover 30% of the Earth's land area, host 80% of the world's terrestrial biodiversity, provide essential goods and services, including climate and water regulation and give subsistence and income to about 25% of the global population. Forests hold cultural, social and spiritual values, and represent a large part of customary lands inhabited by indigenous peoples. They provide a direct livelihood for almost 2 billion people worldwide.
Globally, forests store large amounts of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere and retained in living and dead biomass and soil. According to the most recent scientific findings, the restoration of trees remains among the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation.
How will the Communication address the problem?
The new Communication provides a coordinated and coherent framework at EU level for a European contribution to tackling the problem of deforestation, forest degradation and restoration. It includes measures in the demand and supply-side dimension, addresses international cooperation, finance and research & innovation. This includes fostering a multi-stakeholder and Member State platform on deforestation and forest degradation, setting up an EU Observatory on deforestation and forest degradation, scaling up funding to support producer countries in their efforts, and assessing additional demand side measures, including regulatory measures aiming to ensure a level playing field, to increase supply chain transparency and minimise the risk of deforestation and forest degradation associated with commodity imports in the EU.
In this way, it addresses the most important direct and indirect drivers of deforestation. However, for those measures to have strong impact we will need the full and effective cooperation of relevant stakeholders, including businesses, national governments, NGOs, civil society and partner countries. This is why a central element of the Communication is its partnership approach. The Communication will also help to continue raising awareness about the problem within and outside the EU. Finally, the Communication will help to maintain the political momentum and raise the sense of urgency to act jointly and strongly to protect the world's forests and ensure sustainable supply chains.
What is deforestation and forest degradation?
Forests are rapidly disappearing around the world. Deforestation refers to the permanent destruction of forests and woodlands, and conversion to non-forest uses, such as agriculture, pasture, and urban areas. Forest degradation is the reduction in quality of specific elements of forests, lowering the capacity to provide products and services. A degraded forest implies that the forest has been severely damaged by human activities or natural causes such as forest fires, pests, and climate change.
We are witnessing a decades-long trend of mass destruction with a forest area of 1.3 million square kilometres lost between 1990 and 2016 - an equivalent of approximately 800 football fields of forest every hour, most concentrated in tropical rainforests.
What is causing deforestation and forest degradation?
Deforestation and forest degradation are driven by many factors which vary according to regional and local contexts. The demand from an increasing global population for food, feed, biofuel, timber and other commodities puts pressure on land use and threatens the conservation of the world's forests. Low productivity and low resource efficiency in agricultural production also increase pressure on land. Approximately 80% of global deforestation is caused by the expansion of land used for agriculture. Urban expansion, infrastructure development and mining also drive deforestation.
Indirect drivers of deforestation include unsound policies (such as lack of integrated land planning and unclear land tenure and land rights), weak governance and lack of enforcement. Other indirect drivers include illegal activities and lack of investment in sustainable forest management. Indirect impacts on forests can also occur when pasture or agricultural land previously used for food and feed markets is diverted to the production of fuels from biomass (Indirect Land Use Change - ILUC).
Forest degradation is driven by the unsustainable exploitation of forest resources such as wood harvesting for energy purposes and natural events such as fires, pests and climate change.
What has been done to protect them?
Global awareness of the problem has been growing and many international and national agreements and commitments by governments, international organisations, businesses and NGOs fully acknowledge the need for ambitious action to halt deforestation and protect forests.
The EU has developed partnerships with producing countries to reduce pressures on forests and deforestation. It has raised the awareness of consumers in the EU of the need to reduce their consumption footprint on land and has encouraged them to consume products from supply chains which are “deforestation-free”. When asked about the benefits of forests 66% of Europeans cited the role in absorbing CO2 to fight climate change effects and (63%) the role in providing animals with natural habitats, preserving the different types of animals and plants and conserving nature.
Since 2003, the EU has implemented the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Action Plan (FLEGT) to fight illegal logging and associated trade. Forest governance reforms and capacity building are key components of the Action Plan. One of its central elements, the EU Timber Regulation, obliges operators who place timber and timber products on the EU market to carry out due diligence to minimise the risk of importing illegally harvested timber. The Action Plan also promotes dialogue and cooperation with other major markets.
The European Consensus on Development also promotes sustainable agricultural value chains to halt, prevent and reverse deforestation. EU free trade agreements include comprehensive Trade and Sustainable Development (TSD) chapters with binding provisions on environmental protection, climate change, biodiversity and forests, including the obligation to ensure the effective implementation of multilateral environmental agreements such as the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity. The EU Directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources includes binding sustainability criteria to avoid direct land use impacts associated with biofuels consumed in the EU.
Why does the EU have to address this?
Deforestation is closely linked to the challenges of biodiversity decline and population increase. Emissions from land use and land use change, mostly due to deforestation, are the second largest cause of climate change (after fossil fuels), accounting for nearly 12 % of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is more than the transport sector.
The reflection paper ‘Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030' [i] emphasises that deforestation “is not ‘somebody else's problem”. It highlights the fact that the EU consumption of food and feed products is among the main drivers of environmental impacts, creating high pressure on forests in third countries and accelerating deforestation.
While most products from supply chains associated with deforestation and forest degradation are consumed at local or regional level, the EU markets import a number of such commodities (palm oil, meat, soy, cocoa, maize, timber and rubber etc.) including in the form of processed products or services. When looking at deforestation “embodied” in total final consumption, the EU consumption represents up to 10% of the global share.
As a major trader and investor and the largest provider of development assistance, the EU works with partners all over the world and provides many opportunities in this context.
Why are existing efforts not enough?
Existing efforts and actions to reduce deforestation and forest degradations have achieved some impact. However, few focussed specifically on deforestation, forest degradation and reforestation and they are often fragmented, which reduces efficiency and effectiveness.
Although the private sector's uptake of voluntary deforestation commitments has increased over the last years, the implementation and monitoring of these efforts must be further improved.
Consumer awareness about the impacts of their behaviour on deforestation and forest degradation has improved but still needs to be increased further to help increase demand for products from deforestation-free supply chains.
What is afforestation? Reforestation? Restoration?
Planting trees can be divided into two categories: afforestation and reforestation. Afforestation means that trees are planted in areas where there has not been any or barely any forest before. Reforestation refers to planting trees on land that was previously forest but had been destroyed by human or natural disturbances and made way for other land use, such as agriculture.
Both activities aim to increase the presence of trees but the new trees will never create exactly the same ecosystem as the original forest. While newly planted forests can be beneficial when tackling climate change and help to reduce the pressure on natural forests, they cannot replace primary forest, which have a high carbon stock, and are alsocharacterised by their great age, unique ecological features and the protection they provide to biodiversity.
Planting new trees can have negative effects if the local environment is not considered well, as some ecosystems may not be suited well to be replaced by forests for carbon sequestration. However, if these possible negative impacts are avoided, both afforestation and reforestation could be beneficial when tackling climate change and enhancing depleted natural resources.
Restoring forests goes beyond reforestation in that its primary goal is to recover biodiversity, repair habitats and restore the structure and function of the forest and its ecosystem services.
How are third countries affected?
The Communication proposes a partnership approach. In line with the EU development cooperation principles, the Commission will work in partnership with producing countries on deforestation and forest degradation. Since 2014, the Commission has invested on average 1.2 billion EUR / year to support agriculture programmes in partner countries which face challenges in this area, notably to support climate-resilient agriculture, sustainable intensification and diversification, agro-ecology and agroforestry. A number of actions in the Communication aim to reinforce the Commission's support to partner countries with regard to protecting forests, improving governance and land tenure, increase law enforcement and promote sustainable forest management.
Action by the EU alone will only have a limited impact in reducing deforestation and forest degradation globally. It is therefore important to strengthen cooperation, to encourage consistent action and to avoid diversion of trade in deforestation-free supply chains related to deforestation to other regions in the world. At the international level, the Commission will strengthen bilateral and multilateral cooperation on policies and actions to halt deforestation, forest degradation and restoring forests in key international forums.
For more information
Press release: Commission steps up EU action to protect and restore the world's forests