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Juha Niemelä and Marja Kokkonen: EU stepping up efforts to preserve world´s forests

Publication date 13.12.2019 13.12
Photo: Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry

Forests are indispensable for sequestering carbon, preserving biodiversity and supporting livelihoods around the world. The importance of forests has been pointed up by the climate crisis and the recent devastating forest fires. The EU member states share a deep concern about the state of the world’s forests.

They are therefore undertaking to work together to find ways to redeem the situation. This is the gist of the conclusions that the Agriculture and Fisheries Council is expected to adopt on 16 December on the Communication from the Commission on stepping up EU action to protect and restore the world’s forests.

Although the title of the communication refers to protecting the world’s forests, a much broader issue is in fact at stake. We must keep forests viable across the world. Forests contribute to people’s wellbeing by having a favourable impact on the climate and on the availability of clean water, and in many other ways.

Role of forests in sustainable development

Population growth, and the growing need for food that results from it, gives rise to pressures to convert forestland to other uses. The key question is how to secure our food supply and preserve our forests at the same time. We are also facing growing pressure to replace fossil fuels and raw materials with renewable ones. How can we support sustainable forest management and produce goods from renewable raw materials for a sustainably growing population, while maintaining the forest cover?

When making political or other decisions, we can’t just isolate and develop one single variable and expect the overall impact to be favourable. Especially when dealing with issues related to natural resources and land, we must look at the broader picture and try to understand all the factors affected by the decisions we make.

Forests have an impact on the extent to which many of the Sustainable Development Goals set out in the UN 2030 Agenda can be met. All of the EU member states approved these goals, which thus provide a solid foundation for EU-wide cooperation. In forest issues, the EU countries are divided into producers and consumers. Despite this difference, they are all united in their desire to promote globally sustainable forest management. The Council conclusions on the Communication on stepping up EU action to protect and restore the world’s forests testify to this consensus.

Our work is made simpler by the fact that we don’t have to start all over again. For many years now, the EU has been working at many levels to improve forest management. One example of this is the EU FLEGT Action Plan and the associated Timber Regulation. In addition, the EU-Africa Partnership Programme offers new opportunities for promoting sustainable forest management and increasing forest cover.

Forests a hot topic of Finland’s Presidency

 Over the autumn months, experts from various sectors read the Commission Communication and pondered its impact on the protection and restoration of the world’s forests. The team drafting the Council conclusions received contributions not only from forestry specialists, but also from member states’ officials working in other policy sectors, including the environment, trade, climate, development and agriculture. Finland’s Presidency thus succeeded in bringing together a wide range of expert opinion.

Forests were very much to the fore during the Presidency in other ways, too. In addition to the Communication on forests, Finland raised another forest-related topic in the Agriculture and Fisheries Council proper, i.e. the meeting of ministers: the future of the EU forest strategy. The forest theme will culminate at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in December with the adoption of conclusions on the Commission Communication. In addition, the ministers will have a lunch debate on the theme 'The World’s Forests for a Sustainable Future'.

The EU is poised to become a global leader in sustainable forest management. High-level discussions and communication across silos can only strengthen European expertise.

Forests are most likely to be preserved if they have value for local populations. This is just as true in the tropics as in our boreal forests. Experience has shown that afforestation projects can only succeed if the long-term value of forests to local populations is greater than their alternative value, such as using them for firewood. However, value can’t be created in the blink of an eye. To create real value, we need to work together across sectors.

Juha Niemelä, Director General, and Marja Kokkonen, Director, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry