2.2 Forest ecology and ecosystem services


Understanding the ecological functioning of diverse European forests is a basic requirement, not only for a healthy and resilient forest, but also for a sustainable industry based on this resource. This ecological basis, in terms of composition, structure and function is changing, however, due to human influences and environmental changes. Diverse forests provide society with a multitude of ecosystem services and multiple wood and non-wood products. Forests capture 10% of the EU’s CO2 emissions, host biodiversity at species and gene level, ensure water conservation (see also RIA 3.3), enable habitation in mountainous areas by mitigating natural hazards, offer recreational opportunities and provide employment in rural areas. Through these services European forests provide great socio-economic value. The challenge is to find the right balance in space and time for providing these benefits.

State of the Art 2012

Ecosystem functioning and its many services is a basis for all other RIAs. Current research capacity provides a reasonable insight into forest dynamics, growth and management models at the member state level but there is a lack of coordinated research at EU level on new and innovative pathways. Intensifying international research and information exchange would enhance the understanding of climate change, biodiversity and service provision. Also, the understanding of the degree to which humans influence the system remains weak, as well as Annex to the SRA – Research and Innovation Areas 15 the indirect effects of natural disturbances such as storms, droughts and fire. A better understanding is needed to create a variety of management systems – for everything from strict reserves and semi-natural forests to intensively-managed plantations – using improved silvicultural practice based on advances in functional ecology and genetics. Ecosystem services are difficult to evaluate. In addition, we lack a full understanding of the socio-economic and governance aspects surrounding the provision of goods and services.

Expected achievements by 2020

By 2020 fundamental understanding of ecological processes, interactions and resilience to climate change has improved, of different components of the ecosystems and at different scales of space and time. New modes of payments for ecosystem services have been developed and are partially in place by 2020. Research has concentrated on quantifying the services, their value and on mechanisms of payments for these services. To address the wide variety of services, new models of governance are developed, integrating ecology with economics and social sciences.

Required Research and Innovation Activities

A. Improve understanding of the complex system dynamics of forests in relation to human society and global change, considering non-linearity of processes, threshold phenomena, feedback and feed forward loops, resulting in alternative stable states; derive improved concepts of resilience to disturbances and adaptive capacity.

B. Create a new and better-linked research and information infrastructure including integration of space data, monitoring networks and a harmonised database infrastructure.
C. Improve the understanding of biodiversity development (both intraspecific genetic diversity and species diversity, including above ground and below ground food webs) in managed forests, and the role of biodiversity for the production and variety of raw materials, prevention of pests and diseases, water quality and water-related services, soil protection, carbon sequestration and other eco-system services.
D. Investigate and monitor the heritage value of high biodiversity forests in Europe, including key relics in biodiversity hotspots, ancient woodlands and virgin forests.
E. Develop criteria and indicator tools to quantify ecosystem services, identify their trade-offs, estimate the value of socio-economic benefits and assess the social and human impacts of rural, urban and peri-urban forests.
F. Improve insight into the value of environmental services to society in an integrated land use setting and analyse efficiency of various financial incentive systems and instruments for enhanced provision of these, including payment for ecosystem services (PES) and PES-like schemes.