Since 2015, the European Union has struggled to maintain its forests. Whether it be due to the complexities of its wood-timber industry, climate change, or natural disasters—they aren’t catching a break. And in a new study in Nature, researchers find that the EU is losing significant forest area to timber harvesting. Satellite images reveal that loss of biomass has increased 69% between 2016-2018 with respect to 2011-2015 levels.
While the research states there’s no evidence for direct correlation, the study suggests several reasons for the rise in European deforestation; scientists theorize the link arises from biofuel industry demands and the emerging wood markets. And another possible explanation that the study explores is the EU’s reliance on unsustainable logging practices.
European deforestation linked to biofuel industry
For the past fifteen years, the EU and other timber-producing countries worked to impede illegal logging and timber trade. Its end goal is to ensure that all timber imports come from verified, sustainable sources. The Paris Climate Agreement introduced these ambitious provisions, along with the EU’s mission to reduce its reliance on coal.
In turning away from fossil fuels, though noble, created another issue: their reliance on wood energy causes European deforestation.
Wood energy lists as a biofuel, which categorizes it as a renewable resource. Even countries like the U.K. subsidizes the biomass industry, creating a market for scrap wood turned biofuel. In 2014, biomass accounted for 40% of the EU’s renewable energy; in 2020, it’s projected to make up over 60%.
But EU climate change activists are constantly disputing the components of wood-based biomass energy. They’re mostly citing that carbon debt and forest thinning are direct outcomes of the biofuel industry. While the biofuel sounds good on paper, it seems to perpetuate an inefficient system of “creating carbon just to store carbon.”
Unsustainable logging practices tied to timber harvesting
According to a report by Earthsight, while the EU forests have strict laws protecting their biodiversity, companies are taking advantage of loopholes that allow for “sanitary felling.” Sanitary felling is necessary to prevent disease and pests, yet it is difficult to quantify or manage what needs to be “sanitized” and what is illegally harvested.
Sweden, in the study published in Nature, makes up the largest loss of biomass, accounting for 29% of the timber harvesting. Yet Earthsight states some wood acquired through unsustainable logging go to Swedish companies like IKEA, who denies any allegations.
While Grégory Duveiller and the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Italy warns against making any conclusions on the forests’ effect on greenhouse gasses, there does seem to be a link between unsustainable logging and rise in harvested area.
Jessica is a writer based in NYC, with bylines at Vox and EGMNOW. You can pitch her stories at jessica [at] therising.co