CO2 absorption of Europe’s forests in jeopardy
Europe's forests are an important factor in the CO2 cycle. Woodland accounts for no less than 35 percent of Europe's surface area and absorbs 10 percent of total CO2 emissions.
The economic crisis could disturb the balance by threatening the wood industry, which is the motor behind sustainable forestry.
The United Nations conference which led to the Kyoto Protocol described the forests as the 'stopgap'. When the negotiations threatened to grind to a halt, there were, luckily, always the forests. Dr Gert-Jan Nabuurs from the Alterra Institute for Environmental Issues in Wageningen agrees, certainly as far as Europe's woodland is concerned:
"In Europe, we have a large area of forest which is growing all the time. A lot of woodland was planted in the 1920s and 1930s. That's growing quickly now and absorbing CO2. That absorption of CO2 is important in combatting climate change."
In general, European forests are doing well. They are gradually being expanded, mainly thanks to increasingly intensive farming which requires less and less space to yield the same harvest levels. The result is more room for woodland. The forests are also ageing, which means their ecosystems are more developed.
On the other hand, woodlands surrounding urban areas and affected by road construction are being threatened by factors such as air pollution. And, in the Mediterranean region, forest fires are on the increase due to warmer and drier conditions.
The fact that the situation is broadly going well despite these problems is largely due to the fact that the European wood sector's operations are broadly sustainable.
There are differences between the policies of the various countries involved, but in general European forestry is carefully managed. This means that the number of trees felled and the speed at which this is done is controlled, and that saplings are immediately planted in their place. Such sustainability is also in the sector's own interests: by conserving forests, future wood supplies are ensured.
Unfortunately, this delicate balance is being threatened by the economic crisis, which is hitting industries such as paper and furniture production hard. Dr Nabuurs explains why this in turn threatens the forests' ability to absorb CO2:
"We think it's really positive that you don't just manage the woodland in a sustainable way but that you can, at the same time, continue to produce timber. The CO2 actually stays in the wood products. A book is to a large extent made up of CO2, just like a piece of wooden furniture... You can even reuse old products. Because the woodland is still growing and absorbing CO2, you have a snowball effect."
The danger is that the economic crisis will force wood producers to buy timber from Brazil, China or Russia. This will mean that European forests will gradually run wild. All very pretty, but not as effective as far as absorbing CO2 goes.
The forests will again be seen as important in the negotiations at the forthcoming United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen. In the current economic climate, countries are unwilling to introduce expensive measures to limit the emissions of industry and traffic.
The use of woodland to absorb CO2 is therefore set to assume major importance. Dr Nabuurs is pushing for the climate talks to consider each country's woodland as a whole and not just individual areas of forest as was the case in the Kyoto Protocol. This small-scale approach condemns projects to failure.
Thijs Westerbeek van Eerten