The role of forests in climate change

Forests constitute an integral part of our lives. Not only are they the source of the oxygen we breathe, but they serve several other social, economic and environmental functions. Forests provide jobs, income and raw materials for industry, protect settlements and infrastructure and play a key role in preserving landscapes and soil fertility. They regulate freshwater supplies and are among the most biologically diverse terrestrial ecosystems.

Furthermore, forests play a key role in regulating Earth’s climate and are an essential link in the global water and carbon cycles. Their capacity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and to store it in their biomass and soil makes forests an invaluable natural carbon sink.

According to the Green Paper on Forest Protection (European Commission 2010), EU forests remove approximately one-tenth of the overall greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) produced by the EU 27. Moreover, forests in areas such as the Congo and the Amazon represent some of the world’s largest terrestrial carbon stores. With the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere already having reached dangerous levels, this ecosystem service provided by forests is crucial.

However, evidence shows that we are losing our Earth’s greatest biological treasures, rainforests, which once covered 14% of the Earth’s land surface, but now cover a mere 6%. Deforestation represents the world’s third largest source of GHG emissions, accounting for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions – larger than the entire global transportation sector. Due to deforestation, Brazil and Indonesia are the third and fourth largest greenhouse gas emitters respectively.

It is therefore evident that placing and trading illegally logged timber and related products have a dual devastating effect. On one hand, they undermine fair competition, thus adversely effecting legitimate players in the industry, including approximately 2 million European small forest owners. Secondly, they undermine climate change mitigation and directly contribute to global deforestation and forest degradation. To make matters worse, EU consumers unwittingly subsidize worldwide deforestation, at a time when the financial crisis has rendered their governments reluctant to commit the necessary funds to tackle climate change.

It is in this context that the European Parliament is currently debating and will soon be advancing its position on the Regulation on the obligations of timber operators. The prohibition on illegally logged timber should be an important element of the regulation, working in conjunction with due diligence on the part of timber suppliers, effective public oversight of the market, and relative dissuasive penalties for infringement. A clear message needs to be given: EU member states should commit to putting a stop to this shameful trade, which let us not forget, is often linked to some of the bloodiest armed conflicts on the planet.

The Regulation should also build on the significant work undertaken by the EU and member states on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) which not only ensures the legality of timber but also takes into account a broad range of social, environmental and wider development issues. In light of the urgency of the climate change debate and the deadlock in negotiations, policy coherence between the EU’s trade, environment, development and climate change policies will be an important factor in achieving crucial policy objectives in a cost-effective manner.