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Better forest management strategies for maximised mitigation potential

Forest managers are often puzzled over the best compromise between carbon sequestration and biomass exploitation for energy production. The FORMIT project will soon be revealing the results of a multiple scenario analysis that should enable decision-makers from all across Europe to make more informed decisions.

FORMIT (FORest management strategies to enhance the MITigation potential of European forests) was born from the need to better balance out different forest uses in Europe. It takes into account carbon storage, timber production and biodiversity conservation as well as possible trade-offs, analyses the likely impact of climate change on European forests, and delivers management options and implementation strategies. The project, which will come to an end in September 2016, is currently in its final phase. Prof. Dr Frits Mohren, coordinator of FORMIT and Chair in Forest Ecology and Forest Management at Wageningen University, discusses the added value of his research and its potential for shaping future European forest management strategies. Why was it important to come up with new management strategies for carbon sequestration? Carbon sequestration is a relatively new objective in forest management. The role that forests play in the global carbon budget has been attracting attention only in recent decades, since the onset of concern about climate change and the need to mitigate this by reducing CO2 emissions and by increasing CO2 sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems, notably in forests. Forests store large amounts of carbon, and by adapting forest management this can be further increased, notably in managed forests such as those in Europe. In addition to this, forests may play a role in reducing emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel use by contributing biomass for energy production. Effectively, this may lead to an intensification of forest use, which in turn may lead to CO2 emission through forest ecosystem disturbances. Thus, the aims and objectives of forest management have to be reconsidered, along with its practical operations, in order to understand its role now and potentially in the future in the regional and global carbon balance. Currently, the entire European forest area is accumulating biomass, as timber harvest is less than timber increment overall. As a result, the sequestration of carbon in forest ecosystems may amount to some 10 % of the total emissions of CO2 in Europe. As essentially all of these forests are managed, we need to understand what drives this carbon sequestration, how long it may continue, and how it is influenced by forest management. What would you say is the main added value of FORMIT in this regard? The added value of FORMIT is the analysis of forest management strategies for the entire forest area in Europe. It distinguishes between geographical regions and forest types with respect to mitigation of CO2 emissions. It also takes into account other main forest functions such as timber production and biodiversity conservation, as well as the expected intensification of forest use as part of the developments associated with the increased emphasis on the bio-economy, under which the demand for timber resources is expected to increase significantly. Which European regions did you focus on and why? We used the European regions found in Forest Europe reports: northern, west-central, east-central, west-southern and east-southern Europe. These are broad categories, but our basis is the National Forest Inventory data, expanded on the basis of remote sensing (MODIS) data to cover the entire forest area of Europe, which is then aggregated again for the broad regions being considered. What did you learn regarding the mitigation potential of European forests? We are currently in the middle of the scenario analysis, hence I cannot give definitive answers at this point. But it is clear that the mitigation potential is large and significant, and that forest management is crucial in achieving this mitigation. As mentioned above, currently, carbon sequestration in forests accounts for 10 % of total emissions. This needs to be sustained and possibly even increased, but the trade-off with other forest functions, notably the expected intensification of use under the bio-economy, is crucial and needs to be understood and quantified. We are making a significant contribution to this with FORMIT. Would you say that a satisfying compromise can be found between carbon storage, timber production and other ecosystem services? A compromise will always depend on site conditions, on societal demand for forest products and other ecosystem services. It will be different in different parts of Europe and under different socio-economic conditions. There are clear synergies between carbon storage and biodiversity conservation; but also in the case where there is intensive forest use, carbon storage can be enhanced. But society cannot have its cake and eat it too. The big advantage of forests is the possibility of sustainable resource supply under close to nature conditions. Timber grows on timber, so the cake is growing back all the time. But still there are trade-offs and compromises which need to be negotiated. Our scenario analysis provides scientifically sound information on possible options and the boundaries of the decision space within which policy makers will need to find compromises. How do you hope to convince European regions of relying on your management options and implementation strategies? First and foremost by providing sound scientific information on the options and management strategies, and their consequences, that we can identify at this moment. We don’t want to be prescriptive, but we aim to provide policy-relevant information in the form of realistic adaptive management strategies. The project will deliver management options and implementation strategies for European forests, focusing on mitigation while safeguarding other forest functions, and accounting for regional differences in environmental and socio-economic conditions. These ‘Representative adaptation and mitigation pathways’ (RAMPs) as we call them, will integrate and synthesise current understanding, and provide guidance for policymakers and forest practitioners. The project will end in September. What are your plans after that? Evidently this is ongoing work. The tools and techniques that we have developed will be further applied by the partners to continue with more detailed national analysis, to also provide nationally-relevant guidance on possible mitigation strategies and adaptive management options for forestry. On the more fundamental side, the FORMIT project entails a number of advanced PhD studies that will be completed after the end of the project, and that will lead to follow-up projects, both methodological as well as more applied. Also, we are looking into the possibility of establishing, with local and national stakeholders, demonstration projects to show and further document the available management options. Evidently this will depend on further national and international support, but I trust that our results will stir up enough interest to enable us to pursue our research and support forest management in its challenging task of intensifying sustainable forest use, while continuing to contribute significantly to climate mitigation. FORMIT Funded under FP7-KBBE CORDIS project page