Forests are the largest terrestrial ecosystem in the EU-28 covering around 16131 million ha (FOREST EUROPE 2015b), corresponding to 38% of the EU-28’s land area, hosting a dominant part of Europe’s terrestrial biodiversity, and contributing significantly to climate change mitigation. Due to both natural processes and to active afforestation, the area of forests has increased by 13 million hectares in the period 1990-2015 in the EU-28. FOREST EUROPE 2015b; Sabatini et al. 2018). Nowadays, the major part of EU-28’s forests is seminatural32 (89%) and the remaining share is covered by plantations (FOREST EUROPE 2015b). The EU level assessment of the conservation status of 81 forest habitats concluded that 14.2% are in good (or favourable) conservation status. The remaining habitats are in poor status (53.9%), a bad status (30.6%) or unknown (1.3%)
Extent and change:
The relative changes in the extent of forest cover over the period from 2000 to 2018 are negligible, meaning that the total extent of forest land cover did not show significant changes in that period. The net change represents the balance of changes, both gains and losses, caused by human interventions and natural disturbances. Therefore, gains counterbalance losses in the net change. The total turnover for the period 2000 to 2018 is equivalent to 18% of the extent of forest ecosystems. These turnovers reflects forest cover dynamics in the EU-28 resulting from e.g. forest management cycles, fellings, regeneration, as well as disturbances due to e.g. storms and fires
Drivers and pressures:
Both in the short term and in the long term, the largest number of indicators suggesting degradation falls within the category of climate change indicators. In this category, five and four out of seven indicators in the short and long term, respectively, indicate a path towards degradation. In contrast, in the pollution category, all three indicators suggest a change towards improvement. Finally, tree cover loss has been increasing notably in both the long term and short term suggesting the possibility of a degradation path. In this indicator the loss may be for any reason e.g. wildfires, storms, harvesting, land use change
The most relevant pressures in EU-28 forests are related to climate and habitat conversion, where all indicators with trends towards degradation were found. Climate change may affect forest disturbance regimes directly, indirectly and via interaction effects (Lambers 2015; Seidl et al. 2017). For instance, warmer and drier conditions tend to facilitate wildfires, drought, and insect disturbances, while warmer and wetter conditions may increase the risk of wind and pathogens.
Convergence of evidence
The convergence of evidence mapping was done using those 14 indicators (11 pressures and 3 condition) that provided spatially-explicit data (maps). Key summary figures computed from the maps indicate, for example, that 47% of EU-28 forests are exposed to at least three degradation drivers (indicators), and 20% to at least four (Figure 3.3.14). Likewise, only 20% of forests are exposed to one or none degradation drivers. Regarding improvement, around 42% of forests exhibit at least four improvement indicators, nevertheless this number decreases to 20% if we select forest areas where at least four indicators suggest improvement and at most 2 indicators suggest degradation.
The current condition of EU-28 forests and the trend towards degradation observed in many key indicators calls for an adequate and prompt policy response at EU level. Curving the trend of degrading condition and pressures requires policy action looking at a comprehensive ecosystem-based approach for forests. Policy response should take into consideration the complex interactions between a changing climate and its direct and indirect pressures, the condition of forests (e.g. defoliation) and the degree of use intensity of land and forest ecosystems (Santos-Martín et al. 2019; Schneiders et al. 2012). Only around 14% of EU-28’s forest are protected for biodiversity and nature conservation, this number depicts well the patchy character of biodiversity valuable forests in the EU-28. This situation may restricts connectivity between forest patches of high biodiversity value. Therefore, it is evident that a policy target contributing to improved ecosystem condition as well as connectivity beyond protected areas is required. To this aim, non-protected forests in good condition59 should also play a role as green corridors. Moreover, the need of this target would be further reinforced if we consider the available evidence on projected impacts of climate change in European forest ecosystems (Lambers 2015; Seidl et al. 2017), that in turn would require increased landscape connectivity as an attempt to safeguard plant and animal species. In summary, with the exception of the Birds and Habitats Directives, there is a policy gap on forest and forest management, which is particularly evident in forests subject to high-intensity use for timber production
The current condition of forest ecosystems in the EU-28 is the result of natural and human-driven pressures taking place since the mid-Holocene. Nevertheless, more recent changes occurring since the mid-twentieth century, including climate and habitat change, result in that only around 2%—4% are primary forest undisturbed by man, whereas 89% are semi-natural forests. As of today, the major proportion of EU-28 forest are FAWS (84%) and only around 14% are protected for biodiversity. In addition, around 23% of EU-28 forests fall within Natura 2000 sites.
EU-28 forests are exposed to several natural and human-driven pressures pointing towards degradation. Direct and indirect effects of changes in climate suggest degradation in six indicators in the long term or the short term. In addition, pollutants remain a concern for EU-28 forests even if the trends point in the right direction. Moreover, IAS affects 44% of the EU-28 forest area. Finally, tree cover loss due to several drivers (wildfire, storms, harvesting) has been increasing notably.