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Let’s protect the forests

Absorbing CO₂, offsetting emissions and creating values: just a few of the many reasons why forests should be protected outside and inside the EU.

by Matilde Mattei
17 September 2020
9 min read
byMatilde Mattei
17 September 2020
9 min read

Dreamy and eerie, forests and woods are embedded in every human-being’s cultural heritage: depending on your origin, they can be your weekend getaway from the city, the scenery of all of your scary stories, the set of the boldest adventure movies or the magic landscape for the most romantic novels. In our imagination, forests are invincible, towering on us while refreshing our spirit. People often take it for granted how forests are essential to our society and planet, and many of them ignore that they are suffering, deteriorating – in Europe as well.

Forests cover 30% of the Earth’s land area and host 80% of its biodiversity. They provide important assets such as clean air, water flow regulation, habitats for animals and plants, restoration of degraded land, soil protection from water and wind erosion, resilience to disasters and climate change. What is more, forests have a key role in climate action given their power to absorb greenhouse gases: they store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and retain it in living and dead biomass and soil. However, since the world population is growing as well as food demand, forests are being turned into agricultural land. Between 1990 and 2016, a forest area of 1.3 million square kilometres was lost, which is equivalent to losing approximately 800 football fields of forest every hour. That can lead to serious consequences since emissions from land-use and land-use change, mostly due to deforestation, are the second biggest cause of climate change after burning fossil fuels. Actions in this area are therefore important to fight climate change.

Why forests are in danger

Forests are in danger mainly because of deforestation and forest degradation. There are different factors that drive them: the growing global population leads to an increasing demand for food, timber, bioenergy and other commodities that combined with low productivity and low resource efficiency, put more pressure on land use and endanger forests. Agricultural expansion causes approximately 80% of deforestation worldwide. Urban expansion and infrastructure development also contribute to deforestation. Illegal activities and the lack of sound policies and investments in sustainable forest management are other relevant drivers. Overall, deforestation is mostly driven by economic reasons: forests are destroyed because it is more beneficial in the short run to use land for other purposes than to preserve them. Thus, effective policy should reward the services provided by forests, may them be touristic, recreational, etc. Forest degradation is more difficult to quantify. Direct drivers include not-sustainable exploitation of forest resources and natural events such as fires. It cannot be treated in the same way as deforestation, but it must be included in a comprehensive strategic approach on forests. Overall, fighting deforestation and fostering sustainable forest management face different challenges. Countries and regions might need specific solutions with the two-fold goal of protecting existing forests and increasing sustainable forest coverage globally.

Forestation projects on the go

The private sector can play a prominent role in safeguarding forests by getting involved in specific projects with national governments, local communities and dedicated international institutions. Companies can get involved in forestation projects (reforestation or afforestation) – capturing CO2 from the atmosphere during the growth of the forest – and/or protection of forests that would otherwise be cut. In both cases, the projects reduce the overall level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Forest carbon projects can generate credits that, after being certified by an independent agency, can be sold on the carbon market. There are two main carbon markets: the compliance market and the voluntary market. The biggest compliance market is the EU Carbon Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), which at the moment includes the refining sector, power and heat generation, and commercial aviation, but not emissions from road transport: the system, indeed, focuses on emissions that can be measured, reported and verified with a high level of accuracy. In the ETS, credits from afforestation or reforestation activities are not accepted.  Nonetheless, around one third of the credits traded on the voluntary market are from forest carbon projects. What is also interesting is that a majority of forest carbon credits is generated in developing countries, where land is relatively cheap and forests grow fast due to climatic factors.

Action by Eni

Eni focuses on the protection and conservation of forests in developing countries, where the impact of climate change mitigation actions is considered to be more effective. Eni’s initiatives come under the UN-designed REDD+ (Reduction Emission from Deforestation and Degradation) scheme, which includes forest conservation as well as enhancement of natural CO2 storage capacity. REDD+ also supports the development of local communities by promoting economic and social activities. Eni – while respecting and involving local communities – operates to reduce the causes of deforestation by offering alternatives for local development (such as sustainable agriculture projects and the promotion of eco-tourism): forest conservation projects can create value and benefits to the local areas and communities. Currently, the company has established its first partnerships with the potential to cut, by 2030, more than 20 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, in countries such as Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Mexico. Eni is also in touch with government representatives in Ghana, the Congo, Mozambique, Indonesia and Mexico to discuss the development of new initiatives. Eni has also recently begun a feasibility study for the development of a pilot forest conservation project in Ghana, potentially covering 60 thousand hectares. 

EU towards a new strategy

In the EU, forested areas (almost 182 million hectares of forests covering 43% of its land area) need to improve, both in quality and quantity, for the EU to reach climate neutrality and a healthier environment. Currently, the EU supports forestry in particular through its common agricultural policy (CAP). The CAP provides financial support to rural areas and EU countries can choose to fund forestry measures through their national rural development programmes. The current EU forest strategy 2014-2020 was developed to provide a coherent framework for both EU forest-related policies and the national forestry policies of the member states. The strategy aims to encourage a sustainable forest management. In 2018, the Regulation on the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions and removals from land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) into the 2030 climate and energy framework was adopted. The Regulation sets a binding commitment for each member state to ensure that accounted emissions from land use are entirely compensated by an equivalent removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere through action in the sector. This is known as the “no debit” rule.

However, in December 2019, the Council and the member states expressed their concerns about the fact that current policies and action at the global level on the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of forests are insufficient to halt deforestation. The Commission is working on that: a new European Forest Strategy will be presented by 2021.  As stated in the Communication on the Green Deal – released by the Commission on 11th December 2019 – “The new EU forest strategy will have as its key objectives effective afforestation, and forest preservation and restoration in Europe, to help to increase the absorption of CO2, reduce the incidence and extent of forest fires, and promote the bio-economy, in full respect for ecological principles favourable to biodiversity. The national strategic plans under the common agricultural policy should incentivise forest managers to preserve, grow and manage forests sustainably. […] the Commission will take measures, both regulatory and otherwise, to promote imported products and value chains that do not involve deforestation and forest degradation”. Furthermore, the Communication explains that an upcoming revision of the ETS might include a possible extension of European emissions trading to new sectors, member state targets to reduce emissions in sectors outside the ETS, and the regulation on LULUCF.

It is crystal clear that forests are particular relevant for the environment and in the fight against climate change. We are moving in the right direction as many countries and private owners are searching ways to manage forests in a sustainable way, and international organisations and the private sector are looking into sustainable reforestation/afforestation and restoration of degraded forests to increase absorption of CO2. What matters now is to have clear frameworks where all players can see clear benefits from preserving, rather than exploiting forests, both inside and outside the EU.

 

The author: Matilde Mattei

Matilde Mattei works in communications in the "EU bubble" in Brussels. Graduated in languages and International Relations, she has a strong interest in energy, climate issues, sustainability and European affairs.