Ladies and gentlemen, you can't say the Commission doesn't give you the full picture. We've just heard from Vice-President Katainen, who comes from Finland, the Member State with the most forests. Now you will hear from me, and I am from Malta, the country with the least forest cover.
But, of course, I am not here to talk about Malta. I am here to talk about the big picture. About Europe as a whole. The main thing I want to stress this morning is the need to look at the overall picture. This is a moment to put aside personal concerns and national boundaries, and consider how our forests are a concern for us all.
Vice-President Katainen reminded us how they are engines for innovation and suppliers for the bio-economy. And those are vital roles. But we also need to look at the other services forests provide, for our economy, our environment and for society as a whole.
This is why we have organised this event. Looking 'beyond wood' means looking for the complete picture. It means recognising the hidden role that forests play through accounting for the broad benefits they deliver to society and our economy in our daily decision making.
Because forests offer much more than fuel. Trees literally clean the air. They improve the quality of waters, and help prevent floods. They stop soil being washed away, and they store carbon, fighting climate change. Forests support a wider variety of plants and animals than any other landscape, and we go there to relax and play.
That variety of roles means many opportunities for economic growth. And it means high and low skill jobs, which cannot be delocalised.
But forests need to be managed sustainably. Europe is encouraging the rest of world to manage forests sustainably, through tools like FLEGT, our Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade policy. To be credible, we need to do the same at home. We need to lead by example.
I mentioned the big picture. So what does it look like? What can we learn from the latest reports?
We have a wealth of information. Last year saw the 2015 EU State of Nature Report, a mid-term review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, and a mid-term evaluation of Forest Europe's biodiversity objectives for 2020. They all arrive at similar conclusions.
Despite appearances, we are continuing to lose forest habitats, and the plants and animals they contain.
And worse threats are on the way. As climate change intensifies, we can expect more stress from droughts, fires, storms, and bark beetles, which will hit forests more frequently and more severely. High nitrogen levels are another concern, making forests more fragile.
If we fail to protect biodiversity, forest ecosystems will be less able to withstand climate change. And that will reduce their capacity to deliver the benefits we need.
That's the backdrop to the increasing demands we are making on our forests.
Studies predict that the recent growth in demand is set to continue, with a 40% increase in demand for raw materials by forest industries by 2030.
And that brings us to the question of sustainability.
Publicly we all endorse it. But what does it mean in practice? Very often, there is no common understanding, and no real dialogue when it comes to sustainable use.
Fundamentally, it's a question of balancing our legitimate need for wood production with a recognition of the other roles that forests play.
We often hear that we need "to do more with less". But can this work with forests? Can we have more timber and more carbon storage? More bio-energy and more ecosystem services? More raw materials and more leisure?
Forests are a finite resource. We can't have more of everything. We need to accept that not all of our objectives are fully compatible.
Let's take an example. As a forest owner, it seems logical for me to seek the highest profit. So I am tempted to harvest as much wood as possible. I clear the forest, and plant new trees. No branches, no stumps, no deadwood left behind, as that would be a loss of income.
That looks good for me, but what have I done to the forest? What if 5000 species rely on decaying wood, and countless other species depend on those species? My forest clearing has disrupted the whole food chain, and when that chain suffers, ecosystem services start to decline.
What's more, forest ecosystems need a mix of species. Fast-growing forests like Eucalyptus are less resilient than mixed forests with trees of differing ages. I saw a recent study from Finland showing that the main factor affecting the survival of 11 % of threatened species can be traced back to one simple thing – a lack of decaying wood.
I am not saying owners' first duty should be to the environment. But I am saying that we need to encourage owners and managers to practise sustainable use. We need to recognise good practices, share know-how, and support their role as forest guardians.
And we need to convince policy makers that multifunctional forest management approaches are more sustainable. They offer greater opportunities for regional green growth, and that means more local jobs for local people.
Ladies and gentlemen, one of the roles of the European Commission is to represent the EU in international bodies. So we have a special interest in the Sustainable Development Goals agreed in the UN last year.
One of these goals – goal 15 – requires governments to 'protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, and halt biodiversity loss.'
Europe is ahead of the game here. We already have an excellent example of how to support these objectives in Natura 2000.
Nearly one quarter of EU forests are part of the network, and large areas are managed forests. This shows that traditional and profitable forestry practices, like mixed-objective and close-to-nature, work very well. There are an excellent way to get the best out of nature, delivering economic benefits, and conserving forests and the services they provide.
There is an excellent guidance document showing how it can be done, put together by a coalition that included the Commission, conservationists, foresters and NGOs.
Natura 2000 forests are a model of integrated management, and there is every reason to believe that the model could also be applied to other forests.
But these things won't happen without funding.
A more multidisciplinary approach, better cooperation and more integrated management methods all require adequate financing. That means taking advantage of the rural development programmes. It also means involving Structural and Cohesion Funds, and the LIFE programme too.
I'm sure you are familiar with those, but I'd also like to mention the new Natural Capital Financing Facility which we set up with the European Investment Bank. It shows the Commission spearheading investments in forest natural capital and ecosystem services.
One of the first projects to be considered is the Irish Sustainable Forest Fund. If the project comes about, it will help transform Ireland's Sitka spruce monocultures into mixed forests with native trees, using 13 million euros from the facility. That will improve biodiversity, increase resilience, boost carbon storage, and bring many other benefits as well.
These investments have to be financially viable, and that means a sound business model. We hope that the Irish Forest model will inspire other investments across the EU, and my hope is that some of you will play a key role in that.
Moving to multifunctional forest management is challenging. But realistically, I don't believe we have another option.
There are challenges on various levels. All Member States have their own forest policy, their own forest institutions, and their own forest management history. Given the specific challenges of national forests, that diversity is a good thing.
But it shouldn't blind us of a bigger truth. There are major strategic considerations that make forest management a common EU interest. We have a good strategy, and it's an area where the EU can help.
We also have strong public support, as shown by a Eurobarometer survey earlier this year. So it's what people want, and it makes economic sense.
And this is why we are here today. I want this conference to serve as an invitation. An invitation to solid, structured dialogue, enabling us to work and move forward together.
So we are reaching out to forest owners, managers, industries and authorities. We need you. We need you to show how forests can be exploited in an integrated way, while also protecting the biodiversity they contain. That's the way to true sustainability, for business, and for the ecosystems our forests contain.
Let us know how we can support you better. Tell us how we can help. And above all, share your good practices. Show us how the potential of forests can be realised to the full, while keeping our trees in good shape.
Ladies and gentlemen, I look forward to our more fruitful cooperation.
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