At one with the forest instead of barking up the wrong tree?
Our forests are caught up in the crossfire of opinions and desires – both in Germany and around the globe. From using wood as a source of energy and material through to its recreational function, right over to its place in nature as a provider of essential habitats for biological diversity: the forest has a variety of uses and is expected to meet the most diverse demands. But how can these demands be aligned? And what political measures are now required to suitably accommodate the virtues of the forest in the future?
Following on from three previous, successful events from the series "Ecosystem services forum: opportunities and risks of an economic assessment of nature", the fourth coffee evening was held at the office of Berlin-based environmental organisation "Deutsche Umwelthilfe" on 2 November 2015 and focused on forest ecosystems. With key contributions from a number of experts, central issues were highlighted from the perspective of science, business, forestry and conservation.
Experts on the topic included Professor Daniela Thrän, Head of the Department of Bioenergy at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Gisbert Braun, Head of Corporate Quality & Sustainability at Faber-Castell, Dr Markus Ziegeler, Managing Director of the German Forestry Council (DFWR), Professor Hubert Weiger, Chairman of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) as well as Hubertus Kraut, Director of the Landesbetrieb Forst Brandenburg, the supervisory body for forestry in Brandenburg. The forum was chaired by Professor Bernd Hansjürgens, Head of the Department of Economics at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and member of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv). After giving short keynote speeches, the panel of experts went on to debate various topics with the audience of around 50 guests.
Unsurprisingly, opinions differ on the topic of the forest and "forest policy". It was unanimously agreed that it is sometimes difficult to reconcile use and protection. However, when it came to assessing problems, potential conflicts of goals and courses of action, opinions were clearly split. One criticism, for instance, was that society often does not take into consideration what forests can deliver in the long run. Others pointed out that climate change, higher pollution levels and a growing demand for wood puts the forest ecosystem under increasing pressure and that the signs of stress cannot be ignored. It was suggested that the forest is often perceived as nothing more than a "raw material supplier" and that other ecosystem services are insufficiently considered in forest management. It was further proposed that maintaining such diversity is too strongly based on voluntary acts and that, above all, more regulatory action has to be taken to protect biological diversity. "These problems, however, do not apply to all of our native forests," came a swift response. And the situation cannot be ascribed to a generally unsuitable management approach. At the end of the day, multifunctional, inclusive forestry already achieves a high degree of resource efficiency, it was elaborated. One participant pointed out that the pluralism of the owners and their hugely varying ways of using the forest leads to a range of ecosystem services. Additional, across-the-board restrictions on management? That would only increase the risk of wasting scarce resources and sacrificing social prosperity. What is missing above all, came one comment, is a general appreciation of the forest – at least in instances where it comes at price. This is especially reflected in the low price of wood as a raw material. Despite there being a broad spectrum of uses for this material, its tends not to be fully exhausted. Using wood as fuel, the argument went on, is surely the worst conceivable use considering all the other applications for the material. In terms of controlling the forest, it was put forward that an appropriate financial incentive system should be developed.
It goes without saying that Germany is not an island. The discussion thus began to expand beyond national borders, posing the question of whether or not it would make sense to remove more European forests from exploitation, the majority of which are commercial forests which have been culturally adapted over centuries. This would mean having to purchase more of the raw material from countries in Asia and America than in the past, quite literally exporting the use and protection issue. For an industrial nation hungry for raw materials such as Germany, this would hardly be a responsible-minded policy when taking into account the constant or even increasing use of resources. Doing this would make it even more difficult to control environmental standards.
Can financial incentive systems reduce these conflicting goals and appropriately encourage desired developments? And how would they have to be structured? Or should regulatory law be made stricter? Are the existing legal provisions sufficient or not? The varied discussion threw up many questions. A consensus was, however, reached on the fact that a congruent assessment and valuation of biodiversity and of the various ecosystem services could make for an important, additional decision-making basis in the case of conflicts over use. But before this can be achieved, many different players argued that forest policy must first be consolidated. There was talk of the topic being politically "underexposed" and criminally neglected by many ministries at national and state level. Counterarguments, however, highlighted the fact that the forestry debate in Germany is pitched at a very high level compared with other countries around the globe.
Yet valuation would also imply more efficiency: in order to reduce the pressure to exploit the forest, priorities have to be set in the wood use industry and possibilities opened up by so-called cascade use should be systematically researched, developed and technically implemented. The more consecutive steps there are with regard to the best value material use possible before the wood is used for energy, the better the balance will tend to be for the environment and nature. In addition to this, the significance of consumer awareness and of tangible, production-oriented conservation was highlighted.
To conclude, the coffee evening was also keen to question the fundamentals of consumption and production patterns and modern-day growth models. One contribution suggested that only by effectively reducing the consumption of resources (raw materials, land, etc.) would a consensus finally be reached between commerce and conservation.
"The forest is seen as sacred in German society," one participant commented, rounding up the discussion, "but its treasures, sadly, are not." A wide-reaching, social debate is therefore needed on the use and conservation of the forest and all of its ecosystem services. Above all, however, there is a lack of awareness of the relationships between ecology and economy in our society, it was concluded.
The "Ecosystem services forum: opportunities and risks of an economic assessment of nature" is an event series jointly initiated by Berlin-based environmental organisation "Deutsche Umwelthilfe" (DUH), the Biodiversity in Good Company initiative as a corporate network, and scientific partners Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig.
The forum is modelled on the popular coffee evenings, which have been offered for many years by the DUH on a range of topics. The international study "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity" (TEEB) helped lift awareness of the topic to an international level. New concepts which valorise nature allow biodiversity and, in particular, ecosystems and their services in society to be perceived from a new angle.
The event series offers an open forum in which interested parties and players from business, politics and practice can discuss the opportunities and risks posed by the ecosystem service approach and by valuing nature. The aim is to discuss the various topics linked to the "economic assessment of nature, the ecosystems and their services" and to question where this makes sense and where it comes up against limitations or might even be counter-productive. Each of the events is focused on a specific topic while also placing the spotlight on individual ecosystem services, areas of action or players, to give just a few examples.
Discussion panel ecosystem services - "Eine Veranstaltungsreihe zu Chancen und Risiken der ökonomischen Bewertung von Natur"
Author and contact person at the UFZ:
Press secretary of "Projekt Naturkapital Deutschland – TEEB DE" at the
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Department Ecology
Author and contact person at the DUH:
Project manager Conservation at
Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V. | Bundesgeschäftsstelle Berlin
Telefon: +49 30 2400867 891