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Environmental sciences: Satellite data suggest a surge in forest harvesting in Europe


July 2, 2020

Harvested forest area and forest biomass loss increased by 49% and 69%, respectively, in Europe between 2016 and 2018, compared to the period between 2011 and 2015, according to a study published in Nature. Increased forest loss might hamper the post-2020 European Union (EU) vision of forest-based climate mitigation.

In the EU, forests account for approximately 38% of the total land surface. They currently offset about 10% of the total EU greenhouse gas emissions by acting as carbon sinks. Increased forest harvesting challenges the balance between wood demand and the need to preserve such key ecosystem services.

Guido Ceccherini and colleagues used fine-scale satellite data to assess changes in forest harvest area and forest cover from 2004 to 2018 across 26 EU countries. The authors show that the harvest intensity was stable across most European countries from 2004 to 2015. For the years 2016 to 2018, the authors observed a sudden increase that was particularly marked in countries with forestry-related economic activities, such as the bioenergy sector and paper industries. The largest share of the variation in harvested forest area during 2016 to 2018 was recorded in Sweden and Finland, which together accounted for more than 50% of the total increase observed in all 26 countries. Poland, Spain, France, Latvia, Portugal and Estonia jointly accounted for about 30%.

The analysis suggests that satellite data can be a useful tool to support sustainable management of forests, by providing timely and consistent monitoring of harvesting across large geographical areas. The carbon impact associated with increased harvesting in the EU will have to be fully counted towards post-2020 EU country climate targets, the authors suggest.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2438-y

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