Home / Insights / Don’t miss the forest for the trees: the EU Forest Strategy for 2030 and what it means for Earth Observation

Don’t miss the forest for the trees: The EU Forest Strategy for 2030 and what it means for Earth Observation

Opportunities in Earth Observation for Forestry Applications

You can’t have a healthy planet without healthy forests – and you can’t have healthy forests without Earth Observation. 

Capable of absorbing and storing vast amounts of CO2, forests are our greatest ally in the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, tree cover loss continues to accelerate – the result of human activity, climate change, forest fires, extreme weather events and disease. And, as the forests fall, so too does Europe’s hope of becoming climate neutral by 2050.

With the goal of ‘growing the sink’, the new EU Forest Strategy for 2030 (EU Forest Strategy) aims to improve the quantity and quality of Europe’s forests while also strengthening their protection, restoration and resilience, all of which will require information and data that will come from Earth Observation.

As the 2022 EUSPA EO and GNSS Market Report correctly points out, Earth Observation offers an “unprecedented opportunity to monitor forest ecosystems from space.” In this article, we highlight what some of those opportunities look like and showcase how pilots within e-shape are developing services which help to promote sustainable forestry activities, contributing to our understanding of the role forests play in the fight against climate change.

Opportunity 1: Monitoring Carbon Stocks

According to the Forest Information System for Europe (FISE), in 2019, EU forests removed 328 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere and, as of 2020, these forests held a total carbon stock of 92.1 gigatonnes.

The problem is that when forests disappear or become degraded, that stored carbon gets released back into the atmosphere. According to some estimates, deforestation and forest degradation are already responsible for up to 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. With forests disappearing at an alarming rate, what were once carbon sinks will increasingly release more carbon.

A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases – for example, plants, the ocean and soil. In contrast, a carbon source is anything that releases more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbs – for example, the burning of fossil fuels or volcanic eruptions.

This highlights the critical need to monitor the carbon stocks of forested regions, particularly those of Europe’s old-growth forests. While only representing around 3% of the EU’s total forested land, primary and old-growth forests store significant amounts of carbon and do a remarkable job at removing carbon from the atmosphere. As such, these forests must be strictly protected.

As the EU Forest Strategy notes, establishing an adequate protection regime, not only in the EU, but also in its overseas territories, requires detailed mapping and monitoring, like what is currently being done by the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative. A UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) framework, REDD+ uses Earth Observation land monitoring systems to map and monitor forest biomass and estimate its potential to serve as a carbon sink or, in a worse-case-scenario, as a carbon emitter.

Likewise, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Climate Change Initiative (CCI+) Biomass project uses Copernicus data, amongst other information, to produce global forest above-ground biomass maps at a spatial resolution of 1 hectare. Knowing how much carbon is being held in a forest biomass, and how that stock is changing, scientists can track the global state of forest biomass and make predictions on the amount of CO2 that could be released if proper protection is not implemented.

Within e-shape, Pilot 7.3 – Forestry Conditions – Climate Service aims to estimate carbon emission impacts of forest harvesting activities in Finland. It also hopes to help raise awareness amongst forestry managers regarding their carbon footprint and motivate them to adopt low carbon, climate smart harvesting.

The work being done by Pilot 7.1 – Global Carbon and Greenhouse Gas Emissions also aims to develop a service for visualising terrestrial carbon sinks based on integrating ecosystem measurements, remote sensing, and machine learning techniques.

Opportunity 2: Reforestation

Understanding an area’s potential for carbon absorption is also essential to reforestation initiatives. A wealth of information regarding soil condition can be understood using both radar and optical imagery. This can ensure new trees are planted in areas with significant amounts of biomass, thereby optimising the new forests’ ability to serve as a carbon sink. This information will be particularly important to the EU Forestry Strategy’s roadmap for reforestation, which calls for a ‘strong monitoring component’ for tracking the progress towards its goal of planting 3 billion new trees by 2030.

Inspiration for what this monitoring component may look like can be taken from SoilWatch, a remote monitoring, carbon removal and soil regeneration start-up. The solution applies machine learning to Earth Observation data to provide end users with soil organic carbon measurements. Although SoilWatch currently targets farmers, the same concept could just as easily be used by forest managers and owners, decision makers and environmental protection agencies.

Opportunity 3: Deforestation and Forest Degradation

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that, on a net basis, which includes forest expansions, the world’s total forested area has declined by 4.7 million hectares a year since 2010. Furthermore, every year since 2015, deforestation has been responsible for converting 10 million hectares of forest to other uses.

One of the best ways to detect, map and monitor this deforestation is with Earth Observation. The European Commission’s EU Observatory on the topic is already developing EO-based tools for forest monitoring. Using Copernicus and, in particular, Sentinel-1 radar and Sentinel-2 optical data, these tools can provide forestry stakeholders with global data at high revisit times – all free of charge.

Earth Observation is also being used to monitor, and even predict, illegal logging activity. The Illegal Logging Detection and Prediction (ILDAP) application uses a combination of remote sensing data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) with a Global Information System (GIS) to detect illegal logging in tropical, mixed forestry environments. By analysing such patterns as development and road construction, the application can predict where illegal logging is most likely to occur. Such information can be used to help stop criminal activity and enforce bans on the importing of illegally logged wood.

But not all deforestation is the result of the saw. Although forests are remarkably good at regenerating and adapting to change, climate change is putting this ability to the test.

According to the Horizon 2020 funded REFOREST project, one consequence of climate change is an increase in severe droughts, which in turn is one of the leading causes of forest decline. Thus, the more the climate increases, the drier the land becomes, eventually reaching a point where it is inhospitable to many tree species.

Earth Observation-based climate and weather data can help scientists better understand how different tree species will adapt to droughts, heatwaves and other climate-induced extreme weather events. This in turn could help mitigate the risk of deforestation by identifying which species are best equipped for different environments and based on this information, adjusting reforestation efforts accordingly.

Climate change can also cause deforestation and forest degradation by making trees even more susceptible to insect- and disease-caused damage or death. What’s most concerning about this type of damage is its impact on a forest’s ability to sequester carbon. According to a Frontiers in Forest and Global Change study, forests damaged by insects and disease capture 69% and 28% less carbon respectively. Further, as reported by the Nature Conservancy, in total, insects and diseases have reduced the sequestration potential of forests in the U.S. by approximately 50 million tons of CO2 per year.

In Europe, the Commission, together with Member States, is working to monitor tree health, with a particular focus on invasive species, diseases and pests. Whereas in the past this work would have been done through field measurements, today, more and more is happening via remote sensing. With Earth Observation, forest managers can monitor larger areas of forests more regularly and more efficiently. With more accurate data in their hands, they can better quantify current disease outbreaks and, through early detection, prevent future ones.

Opportunity 4: Sustainable Forest Management

Much of Europe’s forests are under the management of the forest industry. Currently, there are an estimated 16 million private forest owners in the EU. These forests are primarily used to source raw material to produce paper and wood products. They are also essential to the European economy.

According to the EU Forestry Strategy, as of 2018, over 2.1 million people were working in the EU forest sector, generating a gross added value of just over €1 billion. Another 1.2 million people worked in downstream industries such as furniture production, printing and publishing.

Sustainable forest management is critical to the EU’s transition to a climate-neutral economy, and the forest industry has already taken steps towards making this transition (e.g., the widespread use of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification).

But forest companies aren’t taking such actions solely to comply with regulations, doing so is also in their own interest and that of the entire pulp, paper and wood supply chains. After all, if the forests aren’t carefully managed (meaning balancing harvesting and planting), the industry will quickly run out of raw material. This raw material is also susceptible to the same risks that protected forests face, including fire, pests, disease and shrinking habitat.

To better protect their raw material, the forestry industry is turning to Earth Observation.

Recently, a group of forested nations agreed upon a set of criteria and indicators to measure the sustainable development of forests. Of the 83 indicators, remote sensing was found to be able to measure about 25, either in whole or in part.

Forest managers and owners use remote sensing technologies to gather data over the large, often remote swaths of land that managed forests cover. They then use this data to track relevant inventory and, based on this, optimise harvesting and planting plans.

To help the forest industry best leverage Earth Observation solutions, the EU-funded MySustainableForest project assessed the data needs of various forestry stakeholders and then matched these needs with specific remote observation solutions, all of which are available via the MySustainableForest platform.

According to an article published on the EU’s CORDIS website, this platform allows users to select a desired data set, define the geographical area and set the monitoring or analysis period. Data sets can then be previewed, visualised and analysed via a digital map viewer.

The platform derives its remote sensing data from Copernicus Sentinel and Landsat satellites, as well as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensing technology. LiDAR is particularly well suited for the forestry industry as it allows users to accurately measure anything and everything related to a forest, from tree height to topography to wood volume per lot. This information provides forest managers and owners with ready access to high-accuracy, 3D data that can be used for informed, efficient, and sustainable forest management.

Within e-shape, Pilot 7.3 – Forestry Conditions – Climate Service aims to optimise forestry activities in Finland by forecasting tree harvesting conditions. Of particular interest to forestry managers in that part of the world is the depth to which soils in forested areas will freeze as this can hinder harvesting and transport operations.

Opportunity 5: Fighting Forest Fires

Sustainable forest management also means protecting our forests from devastating fires.

With climate change causing extreme droughts, heatwaves and winds, forest fires are becoming an all-too frequent occurrence. In Europe alone, 65,000 fires occur each year, burning around 500,000 hectares of forest and vegetation.

Globally, the situation is even more concerning. In 2020, there were 58,950 fires in the U.S. affecting 10,122,336 acres, compared to the 3.4 million acres lost in 2010. This represents a staggering 200% increase over the last decade. Equally alarming, Australia’s 2019/2020 bushfire season destroyed an estimated 46 million acres, causing a record $4.5 billion in damage to infrastructure, agriculture, and business interruptions, compared to $1.6 billion during the previous year’s season.

To mitigate the risk of forest fires before they happen and to battle them when they do, decision makers and fire departments are leaning heavily on Earth Observation.

According to the 2022 EUSPA EO and GNSS Market Report, Earth Observation has the advantage of being able to provide wide geographic coverage and with radar data, it has the ability to ‘see’ through clouds and smoke and rapidly capture images. That’s why initiatives like the EU-funded SAFERS project are using Earth Observation data from Copernicus and GEOSS as part of their emergency management systems. Coupling this data with information pulled from social media and smoke detectors, and by using AI algorithms, the SAFERS system serves as an early warning system. The solution can also track fires, allowing firefighters to implement a more effective response that could save lives and limit environmental damage.

Firefighting teams are also replacing their ground-based systems and use of rotorcraft with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with a wide range of sensors for capturing data. According to an article published in International Fire Fighter, such systems are particularly beneficial in rural and remote areas, which often lack access to airborne intelligence and overwatch capabilities. In such areas, the use of EO-equipped drones can provide wildfire fighters with another layer of information – and protection.


An Unprecedented Opportunity for Earth Observation

From carbon monitoring to monitoring forestry operations, from promoting reforestation to preventing deforestation, degradation and fires, Earth Observation is an essential tool for sustainable forest management.

This essentiality is directly reflected in the EU Forest Strategy, which proposes financial incentives for increasing monitoring, reporting and data collection. Added to this is the Commission’s plans for a Forest Observation, Reporting and Data Collection framework, which will establish an EU-wide integrated forest monitoring framework that uses remote sensing technologies and geospatial data integrated with ground-based monitoring.

Earth Observation’s essential role in this arena is also seen in the proliferation of products and services already in use, some of which have been highlighted in this article. As the forest industry continues its transition towards sustainable forest management, forestry stakeholders will look to partner with innovative companies who can provide solutions for autonomous and automated forest maintenance tasks.

Between the incentives proposed by the EU Forest Strategy and other EU initiatives and the increasing demand that will come from the private sector, we see an unprecedented opportunity for Earth Observation companies. Are you building an EO service or service? Interested in leveraging this opportunity? We can help. Drop us a line.