Biomass and the state of EU forests

Contrary to popular belief, EU-28 forests have been steadily growing over the past decades. In 1990, European forests represented a total of 19,7 billion m3. In 2015, EU-28 forests reached 26 billion m3, meaning that forest stock increased by 32% over the last quarter of a century.

This growth is due to 2 main reasons: (1) forest areas increasing and (2) a growth in standing volume:

(1) According to Eurostat, EU-28 forest coverage gained 322.800 hectares every year, meaning that European forests are increasing by the size of a football field every minute.

(2) On average, approx 62% of the annual forest increment in Europe is actually felled, meaning that 38% of this annual increment remains in forests. The situation can vary from one country to another. Forest spread is more common in the Mediterranean region, in countries such as Italy, France, Spain and Slovenia, where at least 40% of the annual increment remains untouched.

Carbon stock in EU-28 forests has constantly increased over the past 15 years. European forests store large amounts of carbon both above ground (in the leaves, stems and other parts of plants) and below ground (tree roots, rotting leaves, debris and soil organisms that store carbon).

As compared to 2000, the year 2015 saw an increase in both the carbon being stored in the aerial parts of forests and that being stored below-ground, by 19% and 21% respectively.

Between 2005 and 2015, the average annual sequestration of carbon in forest biomass, soil and forest products reached 719 million tonnes of CO2. To put this into context, this is equal to the average annual emissions of 97 million Europeans.

The fact that forest stock keeps increasing, as well as its carbon sequestration capacity, can be considered positive news for Europe. On the flip side, this creates upcoming challenges for an urbanised Europe to maintain and mobilise the full potential of its forests.

According to the latest State of Europe’s Forests Report, 3% of the total forest area in Europe is damaged, generally owing to biotic agents such as insects and diseases. On the other hand, the amount of deadwood – in particular standing deadwood – has slightly increased in most of Europe over the past 20 years. The average volume of deadwood, both standing and lying, ranges between 8 m3/ha in northern Europe and 20 m3/ha in central and western Europe.

Lack of control or management can generate additional issues such as forest fires, especially in the Mediterranean region. In 2015 alone, there were more than 58.000 forest fires registered in Europe, with total burnt surface area being over 256.000 ha, releasing 1,9 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere, according to a JRC initial estimate.

Bioenergy can play a major role in combatting forest degradation, since extra sources of income for forest owners, municipalities and governments allow them to sustainably manage their forests in the long run.