As the Global Resources Outlook 2019 points out, extraction and processing of natural resources drives all aspects of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution with health implications included. Material use, which comprises everything extracted from the earth, has tripled since 1970, and as the International Resource Panel data tells us – without transformative change – it will double again by 2060. The consequences for the triple planetary crisis will be severe. Therefore, we know it is necessary to decouple growth in well-being and prosperity from natural resource use and its impacts.
Also, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is grim reading. Climate-related impacts are hitting the world at the high end of what modellers predicted, and at an accelerated rate. The increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of some extreme events is affecting food security and this pattern with only grow. But there is still time, although as the IPCC highlights, the window of opportunity is small.
What we really need are systemic interventions, which would limit the need for energy and resource use in the first place. We must focus not only on decarbonisation, which is indeed most important, but also on the need to dematerialize the systems we depend on. We simply need to reject the assumption that these systems need to be so resource intensive.
Addressing the drivers, reasons for triple planetary crisis would provide solutions which would simultaneously lead to positive developments addressing all the challenges we face at the same time. This is an important message of hope that we could cope with those challenges effectively if only focusing on the core reasons which lead to them.
This brings me to the forest, one of the most, if not the most precious natural resource, we have to manage.
Forests in the European Union have an important role to play. The current forest cover presents nearly 40% of the EU-27 member states. It thus presents the biggest terrestrial ecosystem that we have in the Union. They are rich in biodiversity and support climate mitigation. Next to providing primary materials such as wood, fuel and food, they are also important with regards to other ecosystem services: they support the nutrient cycling and soil formation as well as they filter and store water, something that might not be always evident to everybody; they regulate flood regulation and they play their part in air purification as well as they can be protective e.g. to avalanches in the mountainous areas; forests also provide scenic beauty, are educational and spiritual places and recreation. In other words, they are central to our society as a whole.
Society’s demands with regards to the provision of forest ecosystem services are manifold. More recent research has shown that especially environmental aspects of forests are considered important. Those regulating services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity protection and air purification are found most important in larger surveys. On the other hand, they have a long-standing role in creating jobs and providing food, medicines, building materials, and more. It is not surprising, therefore, that forests and the forest-based sector are seen as central in reaching EU’s ambitious plans for a sustainable circular bioeconomy.
European forests are under increasing strain; both due to environmental processes thanks to the current climate and biodiversity crises and increased human activities and pressures. Making them more resilient and adapt to those crises is urgently needed. Ways how to facilitate forest’s ability to remain functional also in the future need thus to be assured.
The European Commission has recognized these challenges and has set the objective to make European forests more diverse and resilient, while being able to provide multiple ecosystems services addressing different social needs (e.g., Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and New EU Forest Strategy). To achieve this, it will require to reconsider how forests are managed and governed. The EC proposes to set more focus on developing management approaches, so called closer-to-nature forest management practices.These aim to mimic natural processes to a higher degree.
While the development of such governing guidelines is more novel at the EU level, already long-standing experiences have been gathered at national or regional levels. These have been developed considering specific environmental conditions. Nevertheless, given the challenges posed for forests by climate change and related risks and the evolving societal demand, an adjustment of management practices may be required. To do this in the most effective way a close cooperation between policymakers, scientists and practitioners is important. This form of co-creation can help achieving the set objectives, while at the same time being applicable in practice.
To conclude, there are two main problems, which would deserve our special attention.
First, our focus and our behaviour are too much short-term based. This, through passing time, exposes all our problems linked to fragility and security, and the unwanted events are becoming even more frequent and severe. The COVID experience and the consequences of the war in Ukraine are making it more than obvious. Fixing those consequences is of course necessary, but more than that, it is important to start systematically building a more resilient economy and society. Only this way can we avoid, or at least limit, the shocks repetitively surprising us, and only this way will we remain credible when claiming necessary attention to be given to food, energy, metals, or any other security and strategical autonomy related challenges. Prescribing pain killers without treating the disease and without trying to identify and remove the core drivers causing it, will just lead to another health-related challenges. To new crises, where we will be again surprised, searching in panic for some quick fixes and ad-hoc solutions.
And second, our efforts to green/clean/optimise existing economic model will unfortunately not be enough to meet the decarbonisation and decoupling targets and limit – in high-income countries reduce – the use of virgin natural resources, including forests. If questions related to over-consumption and to the shadows of resource-based imperialism, which have led us to huge resource import dependency, are not addressed sincerely and effectively, the divide among high- and low-income countries will only widen. This would not create conditions for the effective international partnerships and sharing of sovereignty which will be needed. In this interconnected and interdependent world, partnerships based on fairness are critical if we want to fix the challenges we are collectively facing.
Our current system does not incentivize sustainable resource use, in fact – quite the opposite. At the moment, the signals we receive tell us that it makes most economic sense to destroy nature – trees are only worth something when they become timber. Even though we rely on it for everything, and we know of the severe risks its destruction exposes us to, we do not value nature – and this is incredibly difficult to reverse, since we have become so used to not valuing it, both producers and consumers.
So, I think the key thing which would need to shift to make our economy sustainable are the economic signals which producers and consumers receive. We can change this by valuing nature, accounting for nature in economic decision-making and incentivizing its sustainable use. By doing this, we would also unlock the potential for new value creation opportunities – which deliver benefits for nature and people at the same time.
And we should not forget that standards and behaviour patterns linked to the current economic model were set by high-income countries. We are thus bound to show that we are willing and capable to change the reality we have created and lead the transition efforts.
I know that the challenges we face today can at times seem hard to manage, but we as humans have risen time and time again through history to face enormous change. And we are not alone. With the help of nature, with the help of forests, everything is possible. If we will only start behaving as being part of nature … and not external to it.
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