More than a third of Europe is covered with forest. But as a study now shows, gaps have been showing up in these forests since 2016.

Compared to previous years, the cleared area in the EU has increased by 43 percent, a study shows. The annual forest biomass cleared actually increased by 69 percent compared to the period from 2011 to 2015. This increase is most noticeable in Sweden and Finland, but more woodland has also been cut down in Poland, Spain and France since then. In Germany, on the other hand, the trend is largely stable. The researchers attribute these developments mainly to an increase in demand for wood.

Forests are not only the “green lung” of our planet – they also act as a buffer in the climate system. This is because the trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis and incorporate it into their tissues in the form of organic compounds. In doing so, they contribute to the reduction of the CO2 content of the atmosphere.

Recently, researchers concluded in a recent study that targeted global afforestation could offset up to two-thirds of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Forests also play a significant role in achieving the climate targets set out in the Paris climate agreement – especially in the European Union. “In the EU countries, forests currently account for around 38 percent of the area,” guido Ceccherini of the EU Research Centre in Ispra and his colleagues report. “The amount of carbon bound by these forests in the EU has remained largely stable over the last 25 years and currently balances around ten percent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions.”

Abrupt change from 2016

However, only incomplete data have existed on forest development in recent years. In many countries, forest inventories only take place every five to ten years because of their high expenditure, but satellite images are more up-to-date, but often only roughly used. To get a better overview, Ceccherini and his team have now combined high-resolution forest data from several NASA Landsat satellites with national and pan-European data sources. In a computer-aided analysis, they determined changes in forest area in 26 EU countries between 2004 and 2018. They excluded from the calculation areas in which large forest fires or storm damage destroyed the trees. This allowed them to determine where and how many forest areas were added or disappeared primarily as a result of human activities.

The evaluations showed that the forest areas and thus also the clearing and removal of wood was very stable between 2004 and 2015. There has been little change in both distribution and total area in EU countries. “By contrast, we have seen a sudden increase in deforestation for the years 2016 to 2018,” Ceccherini and his colleagues report.

The cleared forest area increased by 43 percent during this period compared to the average from 2004 to 2015. As a result, the annual amount of wood biomass extracted has increased by 69 percent compared to the period 2011 to 2015. The researchers attribute this abrupt increase in logging primarily to changes in the management of forests and the clearing of forest areas, not to natural effects such as storms or fires, because these have already been excluded in the analysis.

Coniferous forests most affected

The analyses also show where most of the forest areas have been cleared. “Sweden and Finland together account for more than 50 percent of the forest area cleared in recent years,” the scientists report. “Poland, Spain, France, Latvia, Portugal and Estonia together account for 30 percent.” In addition, annual loss of forest land has generally increased in these and other countries.

By contrast, the trend in Germany, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands was slightly decreasing, according to Ceccherini and his team. In 21 of the 26 EU countries, the size of each cleared forest has also increased by 44 percent over time. Coniferous forests, which are predominant mainly in Scandinavia and the Baltic States, are the most affected logging. In Poland and Italy, on the other hand, the largest logging took place in mixed forests, as the analyses showed.

Ceccherini and his colleagues see the increased demand for wood and a change in forest management as the driving force behind the almost EU-wide trend towards more forest clearing. “Although socio-economic drivers and policy frameworks may vary from one country to another, all economic indicators on timber demand and the timber market confirm substantial growth in this area,” the researchers note. The increasing demand for wood is due, among other things, to the increased use of wood as a sustainable substitute for plastics or metals, but also to the production of energy from biomass. However, it is not possible to determine whether the forest areas were really cleared primarily for economic reasons or perhaps only because, for example, bark beetles or drought have damaged the trees too much.

In addition, these grubbing-up in Europe is not the same as grubbing-up, for example in the Amazon, where forests are mainly converted into pastures and agricultural land. “It has to be made clear that this is not a forest loss in the true sense of the word, but the harvesting of forest, which is usually subsequently rejuvenated,” emphasizes Jürgen Bauhus, a forest scientist not involved in the study from the University of Freiburg.

Joseph Mandell

Mandell is currently working towards a medical degree from the University of Central Florida. His main passions include kayaking, playing soccer and tasting good food. He covers mostly science, health and environmental stories for the Scientific Origin.