By Marc Palahí, Hans Verkerk and Gert-Jan Nabuurs
Extreme heat is causing devastating wildfires in southern Europe. Temperatures have been close to 0.4 C above the 1991-2020 average across much of Europe[i], and many countries have recorded their highest-ever temperatures. At the same time, most western and central European countries are facing an unprecedented drought. These conditions will have direct negative impacts on our forests, which are the most important terrestrial carbon sink we have to mitigate climate change.
As of 25 August, over 720,000 hectares of land have burned in Europe. This is more than three times the annual average recorded since 2006[ii]. Forests and other wooded land are the main areas affected by wildfires, which therefore results in large greenhouse emissions. This contributes to further climate change, while also reducing the forest’s capacity as a carbon sink in the short-term. Wildfires and droughts (and also storms), which are very often directly linked to climatic extremes, can in turn increase the risk of other natural disturbances – such as bark beetle outbreaks. This creates complex and mutually intensifying feedback loops. For example, storms followed by droughts can drastically increase the risk of bark beetle outbreaks, which altogether also results in a higher risk of wildfires.
Seidl and colleagues estimate that the damage from wind, bark beetles and forest fires is likely to increase in the coming decade by almost a million m3 of timber each year. This increase amounts to the approximate timber volume on a forest area corresponding to 7,000 football fields. Such intensification, they argue, could offset in the future the effect of strategies aiming to increase the forest carbon sink.
Forests are vital for a climate neutral Europe: we need climate-smart forestry
Currently, all forests and wood products in the EU remove approximately 380 Mt CO2eq from the atmosphere annually, which compensates for about 10% of the total annual EU greenhouse gas emissions. However, as pointed out in a forthcoming EFI report, the European Commission proposed new targets which require that the entire EU LULUCF sector would need to remove approximately an additional 100 Mt CO2eq./yr by 2035 and 170 Mt CO2eq./yr by 2050. This will need to happen in a period of increasing risks due to climate change and natural disturbances. Adapting our forests to the new normal situation is therefore a must if we want our forests to continue playing a role in climate change mitigation and providing many other benefits to society.
Climate-Smart Forestry (CSF) as discussed by Verkerk and colleagues is a new concept connecting mitigation and adaption measures, to better understand and frame potential trade-offs and synergies between ecosystem services, management and wood use options, and their short- and long-term consequences. CSF is regionally specific but builds on three general and mutually reinforcing components:
- Increasing carbon storage in forests and wood products, in conjunction with the provisioning of other ecosystem services;
- Enhancing the health, biodiversity and resilience of forests through adaptive forest management and restoration measures;
- Using wood resources sustainably to substitute non-renewable, carbon-intensive materials.
CSF needs to be implemented through adaptive forest management plans that acknowledge all carbon pools simultaneously to provide longer-term and larger mitigation benefits, while also addressing long-term climate change conditions and short-term risks of natural disturbances. Nabuurs and colleagues discussed through regional case studies (in Spain, Ireland and the Czech Republic) the additional mitigation effect that could be achieved via regionally tailored CSF measures. To advance the understanding and demonstration of CSF in Europe, EFI and Wageningen University and Research have created a specific initiative – a CSF Research Network.
During the coming decades forests and forestry face an unprecedented situation. Climate change and natural disturbances will have severe effects (still unknown in many respects) on our forests, putting them and their important role in climate change mitigation, which also includes the production of wood-based solutions to decarbonize our economy, at risk. The situation, as highlighted by the editorial in Nature on 18 August, requires more than just answers from forest scientists: “The challenges are not only in the science itself, but also relate to how forest scientists collaborate, how they are funded, especially where data collection is concerned, and how they are trained”.
The new normal affecting European forests requires new types of European-level research and science-to-action collaboration and information sharing. Countries and the scientific community need to come together to discuss and agree on ways forward to finance the long-term research infrastructures required, as well as close-to-real-time forest monitoring to support the smart adaptation of European forests and forestry to climate change and natural disturbances.
Relevant EFI work
EFI supports the science-policy and communication work of FOREST EUROPE, the Pan-European process on Sustainable Forest Management (SFM). This contributes to SFM reporting, further advances in risk management, green jobs and education.
SUPERB aims to restore thousands of hectares of forest landscape across Europe and create lasting transformative change towards large-scale restoration.
RESONATE aims to generate the needed knowledge and practices for making European forests, the services they provide, and related economic activities more resilient to future climate change and disturbances.
ForestPaths quantifies and evaluates holistic forest-based policy pathways to optimise the contribution of forests and the forest-based sector to climate change mitigation, taking into account the need to adapt to climate change, including disturbances.
FIRE-RES will develop a holistic and integrated fire management strategy to efficiently and effectively address extreme wildfire events in Europe.
Waldbrand Klima Resilienz (WKR) supports transnational exchange of experiences to manage the increasing risk of wildfires in Germany.
ResAlliance will facilitate information and knowledge flow and increase the awareness, understanding and capacity of farmers and foresters on landscape resilience in Mediterranean countries, with special emphasis on measures against hazards caused by climate change. It will disseminate existing land management practices, good governance, technological and financial solutions.
OptFORESTS will study the effects of silviculture and landscape heterogeneity on genetic diversity and develop new silvicultural options for genetically mixed forests. OptFORESTS will assess the European nursery sector, forecast future forest reproductive material needs and promote cooperation between nurseries.
[i] World Meteorological Organization
[ii] Effis (EFFIS – Statistics Portal (europa.eu)
Photo: kheartmanee / AdobeStock