WRI: ‘In Europe, CO2-absorbing trees no longer have time to grow old’

That is a shame and bad for the climate because tall forests are critical for storing carbon and hosting biodiversity. Moreover, old trees absorb more carbon dioxide than young ones. This is the conclusion of the World Resources Institute (WRI), which conducts worldwide research into climate and natural resources.

Over the past 20 years, the number of hectares covered with tall trees has decreased by 2.25 million. In 2001, there were still more than 77 million hectares. Twenty years later, in 2021, that number had shrunk to 75 million in 2021.

Timber harvesting

Over 80% of tree cover losses in Europe between 1986 and 2016 were human-induced, such as timber harvesting. Even in Europe’s most-forested Scandinavian countries, mature trees fell by 20 percent in 20 years, from 16.5 million hectares to more than 13 million. The study’s figures come from Global Forest Watch, a WRI project that reports annually on the worldwide loss or increase of forests.

Due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the EU’s move to significantly reduce the use of Russian gas, Hungary’s government relaxed regulations on wood harvesting, including domestic energy provision, which may further fuel wood removals.

Wildfires, storms, and insect outbreaks

Deforestation certainly plays a role in tropical regions such as the Amazon. Still, forests in Europe are also under pressure, and far too much is being cut down, with both large old trees and young specimens not getting the chance to grow big.

The wood is used in construction and to generate energy in power stations. About half of the timber felled in the European Union is intended for electricity production. The number of hectares of old, large trees is also decreasing due to climate change-induced wildfires, storms, and insect outbreaks (bark beetle infestations).

2023 was a terrible year for wildfires in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Fires driven by extreme summer heatwaves accounted for 85% of the tree cover loss in 2023 — the highest proportion of fire-related tree cover loss in the EU.

Recommendations

The EU’s new Nature Restoration Law will introduce critical safeguards to protect remaining old-growth forests, set aside additional forests for restoration, and improve the biodiversity of forests managed for wood production. However, additional action and closer monitoring are also needed to prevent further decline in the quality of Europe’s forests.

The good news is that Europe’s total number of hectares of forest is increasing. For example, in 2001, there were 83 million hectares of trees in Europe (between 5 and 14 meters high), which grew to 87 million hectares by 2021 – an increase of 4.8 percent.

According to Sarah Carter, one of the researchers with WRI’s forests project, recommendations differ for each region. “The most important recommendation is to protect old, mature trees. The second is preventing wood waste. The third is setting priorities: What do we use wood for? Sun and wind are more sustainable for generating energy.”

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