On 20 March, Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Environment, delivered a speech at the Economist Group’s second annual World Forests Summit. The theme of the summit was “Unlocking the true potential of forests” and one of the key questions addressed was whether the true potential of forests can be unlocked, while managing them both profitably and sustainably.

Potočnik discussed the challenges that the often conflicting demands for profit and sustainability place on forests and the resulting loss that the world’s natural forests have experienced over the course of the 20th and 21st century. In particular, he outlined the situation in Europe. Although the figures appear encouraging, with forest cover accounting for over 40% of the EU’s land area and a quarter of this forest area protected within the Natura 2000 network, much of this forest cover is in fact increasingly fragmented, uniform and homogenized. This has resulted in a decrease in biodiversity and means that forests are less resilient to pests, disease and climate change.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic. Europe is, in Potočnik’s words, “starting to see the forest from the trees.” For instance, since 2007, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative has been studying the cost of biodiversity loss and raising awareness of the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Potočnik also addressed the issue of climate and energy. The EU is committed to finding energy sources that can replace fossil fuels, provide energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This has led to an increase in demand for biomass as an energy source. Biomass could potentially form a significant proportion of the EU’s renewable energy sources, which the European Commission foresees accounting for around 27% of the EU’s energy mix by 2030. This demand, along with demands for conventional products and biomaterials, would require a significant increase in European output and imports. This in turn would have implications for the provision of other goods and services, since 60-70% of the forest increment is already being used in the EU. Potočnik emphasized the need to “make sure that the limited supply is used in the most efficient way possible, contributing most to society.” Potočnik pointed to the new EU Forest Strategy, which advocates sustainable forest management and the balancing of forests’ ecological, economic and social functions.

As well as outlining the situation within Europe, Potočnik also emphasized the role that the EU plays in protecting forests around the globe. As well as committing to halting global forest cover loss by 2030, the EU is working to improve resource efficiency within Europe by, for instance, recycling wood by-products to make paper. The EU Timber Regulation, which came into force last year, also prohibits illegally harvested timber and associated products from being placed on the EU market.

In his concluding remarks, Potočnik stated: “I believe that with the right policies and practices, we can “unlock the true potential of forests” in the full sense of unlocking their economic potential, while also ensuring their ability to deliver the goods and services we need, now and in the future. And that means fully recognizing the full set of values that forests have to offer.”