Member states lukewarm on forest strategy

RThe Council of Ministers is edging closer to agreeing a position on the European Commission’s forest strategy but draft conclusions finalised in a working group last week are not a ringing endorsement for the plan.

The draft, which still has to be approved by member state diplomats and ministers, “endorses in general the EU forest strategy, in particular its guiding principles… while emphasising the need to further discuss and clarify the strategic orientations”. Some countries have concerns about the criteria the Commission is developing to see if member states’ forests are sustainably managed by the strategy’s 2020 deadline, which they fear might undermine their right to determine their own policies. The draft conclusions stress forestry is an area of national competency. They back “cost-effective mechanisms for demonstrating sustainable forest management” but say these must not impose undue burdens at operational level.

The Commission should make use of existing criteria and indicators developed by Forest Europe, national policies and instruments, and market-based measures, and only adapt them “if needed”, member states continue.

Forest owners’ association CEPF is similarly cautious. It backs the development of EU criteria but only if they apply at national level, building on existing initiatives and measures and do not affect smallholders.

The criteria are meant to be ready by the end of the year, but observers complain that different Commission departments seem to have different expectations.

 The energy department apparently sees the criteria as an opportunity to provide some kind of national-level guarantee that biomass is sustainably produced, whereas DG Industry is expecting something more akin to a product certification scheme.

Some Commission officials also seem to have reservations about existing criteria. The draft conclusions also offer little concrete support for another controversial element of the strategy, which is its support for a ‘cascade’ approach that prioritises other uses of wood over energy production.

Industry groups do not think the Commission should interfere in the market like this and the draft Council conclusions say little on the subject other than that “there should be a particular emphasis on the sustainable use of bio-based products”, although they also back Commission research into biomass's wider impacts.

This is a disappointment to Sini Eräjää of NGOs Birdlife and EEB, who notes a sustainable approach to biomass should encompass both production and use.