To cut or not to cut – that is the question

By Dr Martin Lukac, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading

Europe’s forests make a very important contribution to current efforts to decrease EU carbon emissions, as it seeks to satisfy its commitments to the Paris agreement.

Under a new proposal, all carbon lost from forests as a result of harvesting will count towards overall emissions. Some of the most forested EU countries argue that forest harvesting operations should not be included, because the total amount of carbon stored in forests will not change much.

Given that cutting trees is just about the only forest management operation available to foresters, this stance has some merit. In any forest, the annual increase in carbon uptake and storage provided by the trees is initially very small as there are many but tiny trees.

A key point to bear in mind is that planting more trees equals increased carbon uptake and storage. The storage capacity then increases as the trees grow and peaks when they reach about 30-50 years of age. This is followed by a steady decline as the now far fewer but larger trees reach maturity.

Remarkably, the ‘peak increment’ stage represents the point when the interests of foresters (who want timber) and climate scientists (who want carbon removal from the atmosphere) are perfectly aligned. However, as we all know, it is not possible to keep a forest at maximum increment indefinitely. Trees mature and their rate of growth declines.

There are numerous important benefits provided by European forests, such as habitat provision for biodiversity or soil protection. But, when looking solely at the amount of atmospheric carbon forests absorb, it is clear that some mature forests need to be harvested and renewed.