How Europe’s forests can help us

 By Eniday Staff

It might seem like a paradox at first glance to use more wood to improve the environment and create a brighter future for generations to come

Common sense tells us that it should be the other way round: that the less we interfere with nature, especially where forests and woodland are concerned, the better, because they are the greatest reserve of carbon dioxide there is and every tree we cut down further increases the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In actual fact, there is truth to both sides of the argument. It goes without saying that if you destroy a forested area that has been absorbing carbon dioxide for decades, or even centuries, you are committing an atrocity that will have irreversible negative consequences. But it is also true that if you manage forests sustainably and intelligently and use the timber that such forests produce efficiently, it is indeed possible to significantly reduce the overall CO2 balance. This was, in fact, the conclusion reached by a study performed by a group of researchers on behalf of French think tank the Shift Project.
The researchers involved, who used all of the available data from both European and international institutions, focused on Europe and the contribution that forests on the continent have made and could indeed make in the future. When it comes to forests, we generally tend to think of the Amazon or Borneo and assume that Europe, as the home of the Industrial Revolution, is greatly lacking in this respect. To some extent, this is also true. Indeed, over the course of the past two or three centuries, development of cities, infrastructure and both economic and industrial activities has eradicated perhaps more than half of Europe’s ancient forests. Nevertheless, Europe has maintained a significant proportion of its forests that still, to this day, represent a considerable well of carbon. That said, researchers have warned that this is not a stable deposit, and by no means completely reliable. indeed, a forest ecosystem’s ability to absorb carbon can vary significantly depending on the age of the plants that live there and the rate they grow at. Any disruption can result in carbon dioxide being released.

A sustainable cut

According to the Eurostat data cited in the research, the size of the carbon well (which includes not only forests but also large cultivated areas and newly developed areas, which both release CO2) represents 312 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, amounting to 7% of EU countries’ annual emissions. This large figure is explained by the fact that the EU has some 178 million hectares of forest areas, equating to 41% of its surface area. These could trap almost 400 million tonnes of climate-altering gases per year, not factoring in, of course, agriculture and urban development.
These forest areas comprise 133 million hectares of forest, on which trees accounting for an estimated volume of 22 billion m3 are growing, that could be used to produce timber. The overall net annual increase amounts to 770 million m3, of which only 485 million m3 is harvested in the form of timber. What this means in practice is that the volume of trees cut down in Europe every year equates to just under two thirds of the natural increase resulting from the normal growth of the plants concerned. That makes this a completely sustainable practice from an ecological perspective. That said, this is only true if the volume of the forest grows at an ever-increasing rate. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and there are various factors, from the now almost chronic drought we are experiencing to the normal ageing of trees, causing them to eventually stop growing, that are causing the development of plant life to stagnate.

Strambu Baiut, Romania, one of the last primary forests in Europe (James Morgan, WWF)

Use of wood

Does this mean, then, that the carbon well is under threat? No. The European well is continuing to perform its valuable role effectively, although steps could be taken to make it even more efficient. As a matter of fact, according to the researchers appointed by the Shift Project, various initiatives could be developed to save carbon dioxide emissions in the long term by using timber. Wood is, of course, a renewable resource, but we still have to respect its growth cycles and use it as wisely as possible. Firstly, we could ensure that wood is used to produce handcraft and longer-lasting goods (such as high-quality furniture rather than fruit boxes, for example). Secondly, we would need to replace an increasing proportion of metal and cement construction materials with wooden structures, using wooden joinery rather than concrete slabs, for example (the roof of Notre-Dame, with its 8 centuries of history was an example). Thirdly, we should be using wood materials for various construction purposes that are currently served by artificial materials (e.g. fire-resistant wood wool as a thermal insulator). We could also increase the use of wood in energy production (although the pellet sector is already close to saturation).
The researchers have concluded that we can only implement these policies for increasing the efficiency of how we use forest resources if we take better care of our forests. This is a field with which Italy, as the first country in the world to introduce an environmental certification for its forests, is very familiar. It began with the first few thousand hectares, between the regions of the Veneto, Lombardy and Trentino-South Tyrol, for which a procedure for verifying the capacity for carbon dioxide absorption, along with various other associated environmental benefits such as protection against soil erosion and for the natural water system and biodiversity, was introduced. This forest development model will gradually be extended to all of the country’s primary forest assets.

READ MORE: Reforestation around the world by Thomas Schueneman

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Eniday Staff