Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for this invitation to open the conference.

Forests are such an important part of Europe's heritage and economy.

All around the world, forests are the lungs of this planet. They are the oxygen of this world. And they mean so much – they mean life and nature, they mean materials and energy, they mean livelihoods and home.

European citizens put a high value on forests, especially for the wildlife they contain, and for their role in preventing natural disasters and climate change.

And they play a growing role in Europe's bio-economy, which will feature strongly in the programme at this conference.

Today we are looking at forests from the angle of the SDGs, and I suspect we will keep coming back to a very simple question. A question that everyone wants to ask. And that is, quite simply – are we doing enough to protect this global resource?

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Forests certainly need protection. We all agree on that. That's why there's an explicit reference to them in SDG 15. And when you look closely, you realise that there is a forest-related component to 28 targets across 10 different Sustainable Development Goals.

The world's forests are multitasking on an impressive scale.

And that strengthens the case for decisive action. When we act for forests, when we protect, restore, and manage them sustainably, we're sharpening a very powerful tool. They help us reduce hunger, deliver clean water and clean air, fight climate change, improve health, enable jobs and growth, and make urban environments more sustainable.

As well as being precious, they are limited and they are vulnerable. So it's imperative that we use them wisely and avoid overexploitation.

Deforestation and forest degradation are areas where the planetary boundaries are approaching very fast. The time for action is now, and for us, that means ensuring that the right policy choices are being made. That we really are facing up to the challenge, and doing enough to protect them.

So how can we characterise European action? What, exactly, are we doing to protect them?

Let’s start with the legal basis at home. Here in Europe, the Nature Directives, Natura 2000, and the EU Timber Regulation are well established. These are strong tools, with the potential to protect forest ecosystems, restore them, and make them more resilient where needed. Natura 2000 already protects nearly one quarter of all EU forested areas. This legal framework is strong, and we know it has the backing of our Member States.

Sectoral legislation is important, but we also need a broader approach. A strategic approach, which takes account of the multitude of competing demands when it comes to these resources. Forests are timber, they are recreation, they are carbon storage, they are disaster protection, and so much more besides.

That’s why we also have the EU Forest Strategy, which is built around the notion of multi-functionality, with a view to steering Europe towards the sustainable management of its forests. The strategy dates back to 2013, and when we reviewed it last year, we found significant progress towards the targets, with much improved coordination of EU policy areas related to forests.

But we know we can do better, and that’s why we are working closely with forest managers and owners. These people have motivation and expertise, there is no shortage of proven sustainable management practices, but we need to see them deployed more widely. Practices that improve the conservation status of forest habitats and species, as well as the resilience of forest ecosystems.

We are taking a similar approach towards a sustainable Bioeconomy. The new strategy here is to develop bio-based sectors, especially at the local level, while ensuring we remain within ecological boundaries. That way we optimise the contribution of the bioeconomy towards the SDGs, while also renewing industries, protecting the environment, and enhancing biodiversity. 

The third action area is deforestation and forest degradation. In the EU, we have concerns about the degradation of some of our forests, because we have too many habitats and species in unfavourable status. That said, overall forest cover is still growing in the EU, as it has done for 60 years. But the international picture is very different. If we want to deliver on the objective of halting global forest cover loss by 2030, then we need action that is more decisive. FLEGT has delivered some powerful changes, especially through the Timber Regulation, but there are other areas that need our attention.

That’s why, with an eye on tropical deforestation in particular, we plan to present a Communication on stepping up EU Action against Deforestation and Forest Degradation in the coming months. The idea is to explore avenues where we could step-up EU action to protect forests in partnership with tropical countries, also when it comes to the impact of EU consumption. I am thinking in particular of commodities produced or consumed in a non-sustainable manner which have become major drivers of global deforestation.

I can’t go into any details yet, because this is still a work in progress, but I can say that we are doing all we can to ensure a more comprehensive EU-wide approach.  And there is still room for more input from outside – the public consultation is open as I speak, and we need input from as many sides as possible, so do please contribute if you haven’t yet done so.

The last action area I want to mention is EU mechanisms for support. Historically, we have put massive resources into forests through EU funds, loans, grants, capacity building, technical support, cooperation mechanisms and so forth – and we have seen good results.

I want that to continue into the next financial period, so I am pushing hard, together with my services and colleagues from across the Commission, to ensure that this remains the case in the next financial period, from 2021-27.

We are now finalising the CAP, and we are very close to agreement on LIFE, which is set to make a major contribution in the forestry sector in the forthcoming period. Work is continuing on the Natural Capital Financing Facility, an instrument that supports biodiversity and climate adaptation projects through tailored loans and investments, backed by an EU guarantee.

One first example of its potential is the Irish Sustainable Forest Fund, which buys up spruce plantations with support from the Facility, and transforms them into more natural forests with permanent tree cover and mixed tree structure. Exactly the sort of measure we need to see to address concerns about the make-up of EU forest cover.

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Ladies and gentlemen, I started by asking if we are doing enough.

I hope I've shown that we are doing a lot, in many different areas, inside the EU and on the world stage. And that we know there is room for improvement. We are working on those gaps, and we are strengthening the contribution of forests and trees to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

But delivering that agenda means taking a partnership approach. It means working together with everyone who has a stake in the process, and more particularly with everyone taking part in this forum today.

So I look forward to your contributions, to our continued cooperation, and I thank you for sharing our determination to deliver on the SDGs. 

Thank you.

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