The EU Green Deal is a comprehensive policy framework aimed at transitioning the EU to a sustainable and low-carbon economy. It has significant implications for the forestry sector in Europe, as forests play a crucial role in mitigating climate change and protecting biodiversity. One of the primary goals of the Green Deal is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, which requires significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Forests have a vital role in achieving this goal, as they can sequester and store carbon from the atmosphere. The Green Deal recognizes the importance of sustainable forest management practices in achieving this goal and emphasizes the need to increase the EU's forest carbon sink.
However, it also fails to take into account the environmental differences amongst European forests, creates the potential for negative impacts on biodiversity which without active management can result in monoculture plantations, and fail to adequately address the social aspects of forestry such as the rights and livelihoods of forest-dependent communities.
This article seeks to highlight the complexities of forest management and the need to balance competing goals to achieve sustainable outcomes. It also emphasizes the importance of using multiple indicators and interconnected analysis to assess biodiversity and the potential for innovative approaches to support sustainable forestry practices.
The EU is increasingly adopting legally binding approaches. This difference in international approaches decreases the competitiveness of the EU forestry sector.
Today, various segments of society have multiple expectations from forests and their management, making it challenging to meet all these expectations simultaneously. By protecting a species of plant, for example, it may become unfeasible to implement sustainable forest management practices. There is also inequality in the approach to forest management on a global level. For instance, the Biodiversity Convention is non-binding, whereas the EU is increasingly adopting legally binding approaches. This difference in international approaches decreases the competitiveness of the EU forestry sector.
The ideal situation would be to have a single solution that helps achieve several goals. However, this is not always feasible. For example, improving carbon sequestration and enhancing biodiversity protection may appear to be a win-win situation, but in the long term, the forest environment may reach a point where natural mortality equals the annual increment level, and the forest can no longer provide additional carbon sequestration. The time it takes for a forest to reach carbon saturation depends on a range of factors, including the forest type, age, management practices, and environmental conditions. Young and rapidly growing forests are typically more effective at sequestering carbon than mature or old-growth forests, which are generally close to or at carbon saturation.
Another example is related to drainage systems. The general call to abandon drainage systems can be understood in the context of protecting rare species or habitats, but such an activity can reduce carbon sequestration in forests and even cause trees to die. Published research draws different conclusions regarding forest drainage. From a carbon sequestration perspective, drained forests are more productive, leading to significantly higher CO2 uptake. As not every forest is alike, the use of drainage systems in European forests should be considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the specific forest type, management goals, and environmental conditions. It is important to implement best management practices to mitigate any negative impacts.
A combination of indicators is used to characterize biodiversity, and these indicators should be analyzed in interconnected ways rather than separately.
Biodiversity protection is crucial at the forest property level, where the details matter. While the guideline is generally to increase strict protection, in practice, protected species may follow management activities outside the territory intended for their protection. An example in Latvia is the plant Erica tetralix which has spread well beyond its original habitat as a result of its protected status. Therefore, while a strict protection regime is essential for providing favorable conditions for habitat and species protection, there may also be a need for a special management regime to maintain specific habitats' good conditions. There is no universal indicator available that can fully characterize biodiversity, and it is unlikely that one such indicator will be discovered in the future, given the broad scope of biodiversity. A combination of indicators is used to characterize biodiversity, and these indicators should be analyzed in interconnected ways rather than separately.
Latvia's State Forests (LVM) is closely involved in biodiversity conservation. With more detailed information on biodiversity than ever before, but without similar data for historical periods, it is difficult to compare the situation over time in Latvia. Over a century, significant land use changes have occurred in Latvia with forest cover increasing from 27% in 1925, to 53% in 2022. The forestry sector is a major contributor to Latvia's economy, accounting for around 3% of its GDP and providing employment for around 30,000 people. It is an important source of employment and income for rural communities. Forests have long been an important part of Latvian culture and history, and the forestry industry plays a role in preserving this heritage. The industry provides opportunities to maintain these connections through forest management, recreation, and other activities.
In the forestry sector, circular economy was understood as a full use of raw materials without creating waste, typically driven by market forces. However, there is a new idea to develop this process further with wood - the idea of using the value cascading principle. This is a complex concept that can be difficult to implement in practice due to the lack of clarity around how the principle should be applied and how it can be monitored and enforced. It therefore remains an open question whether this requires legislation and whether such regulation can indeed help to achieve the multiple goals that we seek to achieve.
The forestry industry in Latvia is constantly evolving, with new technologies and innovations being developed to improve forest management, harvesting, and processing. This creates opportunities for Latvian companies to develop new products and services, and to become leaders in the global forestry industry and circular economy, but only if future legislation does not become counter-productive. A truly balanced and integrated approach to sustainable forest management should consider economic, social, and environmental factors and recognize the complexities and trade-offs involved in achieving sustainable outcomes including carbon neutrality.
By Latvia’s State Forests (LVM), a state-owned company managing more than half of Latvia's forest area.
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