Deforestation, which is the conversion of forest land to some other land use like agriculture, is widely recognised as contributing to both biodiversity decline and accelerated climate change. Forest degradation, meaning man-made damage to forests that does not result in permanent land use change (excepting conversion to plantations, which should be treated as land use change, but is not), is arguably an even greater cause of forest decline in the EU. During the UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow, EU policymakers signed up to the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land use, which promised a collaborative approach to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”. The declaration promises to “facilitate the alignment of financial flows with international goals to reverse forest loss and degradation”, which brought deforestation and forest degradation to the same level of importance.

The EU has initiated a legislative process to reduce the risk that deforestation and forest degradation are associated with products sold in the EU. Only a week after the launch of the Glasgow Declaration, the European Commission (EC) presented its proposal for a regulation on deforestation-free products. This proposal also recognised that deforestation and forest degradation are accelerating, and they aggravate climate change and the loss of biodiversity. The EC proposal states that halting forest degradation will contribute to reducing GHG emission.

A key aspect of the EC communication is to establish a definition of forest degradation that builds on other definitions but goes a step further to clearly link degradation to forest harvesting. The definition considers the reduction of biological productivity as an indicator of forest degradation, but recognizes that biological productivity represents much more than just timber volume, referring also to ecosystem function and characteristics such as biodiversity.

Following the EC communication, the European Parliament’s ENVI committee adopted its report on 12 July 2022. Importantly, this report linked forest degradation also to a declining forest carbon sink, which is an important step to protecting our last old-growth forests and also promoting forest restoration (“proforestation”) in Europe.

Predictably, forest industry lobbyists are trying to weaken the legislative proposal, advocating that the European Parliament plenary exclude forest degradation from the final text. The Swedish Forest Industry’s position paper for instance demands that the regulation should simply focus on “deforestation and legality, tackle forest degradation through enhanced support for sustainable forest management.” Well how’s that been working so far? Clearly not well. Tackling forest degradation through sustainable forest management is implausible in any case because the forest industry typically defines sustainability with a single criterion: that harvest takes less wood volume than forest growth adds in a year. The Finnish Forest Industry’s position paper goes even further in attempting to downgrade the importance of forest degradation, stating “the regulation should only apply to deforestation caused by agricultural use and not to forest degradation”

Capitulating to the forest industry’s demands would be a big mistake by EU policymakers. The forest industry has had decades to prove they can manage forests without destroying them, but what do we see? A declining forest carbon sink, jeopardizing climate action; steep declines in ecosystem function and the numbers and habitat of hundreds of species of plants and animals, putting the very nature of nature at risk. It’s time for a change.

A letter by 50 scientists to the members of the European Parliament ENVI committee agrees. The scientists highlighted that “forest degradation is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Any failure to include degradation in the regulation would run counter to the aims of the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration and undermine the EU’s professed desire to see Europe become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.”

The Forest Defenders Alliance calls on the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission to stand strong in the face of forest industry lobbying, and not remove “forest degradation” from the legislation. To do so would not only weaken the EU’s status in arguing for unified global action to protect forests, but would also seriously undermine effective implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the proposed EU Nature Restoration Law.

Deforestation and forest degradation must both be stopped if we are to save nature