While many European forests are slowly recovering from centuries of over-exploitation, hardly any primary forests are left on the continent
Europe’s forests offer a plethora of ecosystem services to society, e.g. timber, recreation, biodiversity and carbon storage. But species dependent on mature forest and dead wood are often threatened.
Forests and forest management face a variety of challenges due to ecological and socio-economic developments, such as climate change and an increasing demand for wood from the bioenergy sector. Forests are currently the most important source of bioenergy in Europe. The energy sector is also assumed to be the leading sector in driving increased use of wood, with more than 200 million cubic meters of additional wood use for energy use just between 2010 and 2020. This is equivalent to about 40% EU’s current forest harvests.
Bioenergy imported from outside of Europe is most often also wood, in the form of wood pellets. Europe is already importing more than 5 million tons of wood pellets to burn them in energy facilities, mostly from the Southern US and from Canada. Pellet imports to the EU have tripled during the past five years due to renewable energy policies. Negative environmental impacts of the increased logging have been strongly highlighted both in the US and in Canada.
Already before the EU’s renewable energy policies, side-products of the paper and wood working industries such as black liquor and sawdust have been used for energy. Use of these kinds of waste and residues streams, including also waste wood, pruning for landscape management, and to some extent residues and branches from harvesting areas, are considered to have less negative impacts on nature and the climate. But the availability of these resources is limited and they also have competing uses.
Negative environmental and climate impacts are of particular concern when the energy demand is driving an increased amount of logging and whole trees with potential other uses are used directly for energy. Using whole trees (including so called thinning wood, pulpwood etc.) and trees from additional harvesting, have been estimated to create significant carbon emissions and so-called carbon debt. Unaccounted emissions for woody bioenergy use in the EU are projected to be 100 – 150 Mt CO2eq annually by 2020, if there are no changes in bioenergy policies.