OSLO (Reuters) - Forests in the European Union are expanding surprisingly fast and could be enlisted to help the EU achieve goals for fighting climate change, researchers said on Thursday.
Forests grew by a net 10 percent in western EU countries and by 15 percent in the east from 1990 to 2005, they said. The reasons included better conservation, migration to the cities, and increased productivity on farms that need less land.
“Forests in Europe have captured and stored very much carbon in the past 15 years — we were surprised by the numbers,” said Pekka Kauppi, who led the University of Helsinki study, published in the British journal Energy Policy.
Trees soak up carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, as they grow, and release it when they rot or are burnt.
The scientists estimated that the net expansion of forests in the 27 EU nations absorbed 126 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from 1990 to 2005 — equivalent to 11 percent of EU emissions from human activities, led by burning fossil fuels.
Forests in Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Finland had the highest net absorption. At the other end of the scale were lightly forested countries such as Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Cyprus and Denmark.
The scientists urged the EU to award credits for forests, now outside the main accounting system for greenhouse gases under the U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol, the main pact for fighting climate change until 2012.
Beyond Kyoto, the EU has set a goal of cutting emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 as part of a drive to mitigate the consequences of climate change, which could mean more heatwaves, more disease, rising seas and droughts.
“Time is running short to reach such an ambitious goal,” the researchers wrote.
“Therefore, in addition to addressing the fossil emissions, we encourage the national governments of Europe to focus on agricultural and forest policy and waste management.”
The study adds a twist to calls by many developing nations for a system of credits to help them slow the rate of deforestation, such as in the Amazon basin.
Tropical nations are set to press that argument at a U.N. climate meeting in Bali next month.
Since 1990, EU forest growth has done twice as much to absorb greenhouse gases as EU measures to promote renewable energies such as wind or hydro power, the scientists said.
The study builds on a 2006 report saying that many of the world’s forests seemed to be making a comeback. Some countries are more densely forested now than 200 years ago.
Editing by Kevin Liffey