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Forests in the Northern Hemisphere are growing but reforms are needed to maximise their economic and social use

Published: 20 March 2015

While forest cover is expanding in the UNECE region, with an increase over the last 15 years of a total area of approximately the size of the United Kingdom, the income generated by forests and the related sectors is declining, the job force is shrinking, and many forest related services could be monetized.  Urgent reforms are thus needed to reverse these trends and realize the potential of increasing wood availability. – These are the main findings of the study ‘Forests in the ECE region: Trends and Challenges in Achieving the Global Objectives on Forests,’ published today by the joint UNECE/FAO office in Geneva.

The 56 countries of the UNECE region host 41.4% of the world’s forests, and produce some 58% of world’s industrial roundwood. The average forest cover in the region is nearly 41% (see table 1, page 3), higher than the world average, which is 31%. Forest cover has been expanding in all parts of the region for several decades. The net increase between 2000 and 2015 was 28.1 million ha (see table 2, page 4), or 1.5% of the total area of forest and other wooded land in 2000. Natural expansion onto former agricultural land accounts for most of the increase, but afforestation has played a significant role in some countries, in particular in the United States of America, Turkey, Spain and Portugal.

Forests of the region are also expanding in terms of stocks of wood. Growing stock, total and per hectare, has been increasing steadily. Net annual increment (NAI) has risen and is more than the harvest in all countries where this parameter is measured, a clear signal that the use of wood could be significantly increased in the region while preserving the resource.

Forests in the region are a significant carbon sink.  Although there is uncertainty over the exact size of the sink, and its underlying causes, the total stock of carbon in aboveground living biomass in the region is estimated to amount to 64.3 Gt of carbon (see table 3, page 4) and in harvested wood products to over 5 Gt. The total forest biomass carbon sink – the carbon sequestered each year by the region’s forest ecosystems – amounted to 255 million tonnes of carbon per year between 2005 and 2010.

The study was developed as the regional contribution to the session of the United Nations Forum on Forests to take place in May in New York. It concludes that while forests are expanding, their contribution to the region’s economies is either decreasing or is very slow in adapting to the needs of a changing society. It also finds that some forest related services are not monetized.  

For instance, while the area of protected and certified forests has increased (by 52.2% from 2007 to 2014 -  see table 4, page 5) and supply of environmental services is increasingly considered in management strategies, conservation credit exchanges and payment for environmental services are discussed a lot, but are still rare in practice. However Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, for example, have national schemes for compensating private and public forest owners for maintaining particular attributes of the forest holdings.

The forest sector’s contribution to GDP in the UNECE region has fallen in absolute and relative terms from 1.2% to 0.8% over a decade (see table 5, page 5). The declines are striking in their size and consistency across the region. The 2008 global recession, with its heavy impact on the housing sector, hit the sector hard, particularly in North America. An additional factor is the decline in demand for newsprint and related paper products resulting from substitution by electronic media.

Employment in the forest sector has also fallen sharply throughout the region (see table 6, page 6), notably because of higher labour productivity.  Forestry employment in North America shows a 33% decline, while the forest sector as a whole experienced a 38% decline, traceable most directly to the cyclical contraction in the U.S. housing market but also to the long-term decline in the U.S. and Canadian paper sectors.

Endemic poverty persists in many indigenous communities and other rural forested areas. Sharp declines in forest sector employment have resulted in reduced livelihoods and caused hardship to unemployed workers and their communities, particularly in timber dependent areas.

Finally, the study identifies a list of 13 major challenges as well as ways and means to address them. For instance, increased consumption of forest products from sustainable sources should be promoted as it contributes to climate change mitigation, the economic sustainability of the forest sector, job creation or maintenance, as well as the transition to a green economy. The study also stresses that the forest sector should become more “green” and should take the lead in the transition towards a green economy.

For more information please contact:

Ms. Ivonne HIGUERO
Deputy Director
UNECE Forests, Land and Housing Division

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Palais des Nations, 

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 44 44

Fax: +41 (0) 22 917 05 05