Scientists call for ‘climate smart’ forestry in face of global warming
Over 550 scientists have signed a letter to the European Commission, alerting them of the deteriorating state of European forests and calling for climate-smart forestry practices – including wood harvesting for bioenergy – to bolster their resilience to global warming.
European forests are under growing pressure from rising temperatures, which cause more wildfires, pests and diseases that threaten their ability to store carbon dioxide and safeguard biodiversity.
“Hot and dry weather in many parts of Europe and the world makes us worry about the future of our forests,” says the letter, addressed to the presidents of the three main EU institutions – the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.
The letter, calls for “climate-smart forest management” to bolster European forests’ resilience and capacity to produce wood and grow carbon simultaneously.
“If dry years become more frequent, we expect that forest biomass will decrease rather than increase in the next decade irrespective of management and protection,” they warn.
Environmental groups say an easy win is to restrict the amount of woody biomass used in energy production, advice that the European Parliament broadly took on board.
In September, lawmakers voted in favour of plans to end subsidies for biomass burned in power plants and to exclude most primary wood burning from the EU’s renewable energy targets.
EU bioenergy rules in focus
Bioenergy has been criticised by environmental groups who say burning wood drives deforestation, destroys natural habitats, and undermines forests acting as carbon sinks in the fight against climate change.
But the letter from the 550+ scientists disputes those claims, saying that continued forest maintenance – not blanket protection – is crucial to ensure forests continue providing so-called ecosystem services.
“Wood from sustainably managed forests is CO2-neutral, concerning the ecosystem processes,” the letter points out, saying selected harvesting removes competition between individual trees and enables forests to recover more quickly from losses caused by natural disasters.
“Without harvesting, the forest volumes will saturate. The carbon sink will approach zero, as it is visible in the old-growth areas in Ukraine’s pristine forests,” the scientists write.
From that perspective, the economic exploitation of forest-based wood products should be seen as an inherent part of sustainable forestry practices, including the burning of biomass for electricity generation, they argue.
“With proper forest management, the use of wood for energy is a co-product of harvest and the processing of wood for products,” the scientists write, saying there are sufficient volumes of by-products such as tree tops, residues and recycled wood available to secure renewable energy supply.
“Banning the use of wood for energy from sustainably managed forests and increasing the share of EU forests under protection is not suitable to support Europe’s climate protection policy, has no further benefits for biodiversity and hinders circular bioeconomy,” the letter says.
Those arguments were refuted as “pro-biomass industry propaganda” by Alex Mason from the WWF’s EU office.
Instead, Mason pointed to another letter from 2018 signed by multiple IPCC lead authors and other leading scientists, who urged EU policymakers to drastically limit forest biomass used for energy.
“We urge European legislators … to restrict eligible forest biomass to appropriately defined residues and wastes because the fates of much of the world’s forests and the climate are literally at stake,” they wrote.
According to the European Commission, almost 60% of the EU’s total renewable energy consumption currently comes from biomass, with three-quarters going to heating.
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