Severe economic loss for European forest land expected by 2100

By 2100 the climate change is expected to reduce the economic value of forest land by 14 to 50 %, which equates to a potential damage of several hundred billion Euros unless effective countermeasures are taken. This is the conclusion of the first pan-European study on the economic effects of climate change on forest land. It was conducted by an international team of scientists led by Marc Hanewinkel from the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. The paper was published online in the journal "Nature Climate Change" on 23 September 2012.

Even by a moderate climate change scenario, forecasted changes in temperature and precipitation will heavily influence the range of most tree species. Cold-adapted and mesic species such as Norway spruce, which to date contributes to a large part to the economic value in European forests, will experience large range contraction in the long run. An international team of scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute WSL, the Forest Research Institute of Baden-Wuerttemberg (Germany), the Alterra/Wageningen University and Research Centre (The Netherlands), the European Forest Institute (Finland), and the University of Freiburg (Germany)  found that under the three IPCC climate change scenarios* analyzed in this study, Norway spruce will shift northward and is likely to lose large parts of its current range in Central, Eastern and Western Europe (figures 1 and 2). In higher elevations of the Alps spruce might possibly survive. On the other hand, more drought-adapted but slow-growing Mediterranean species like oaks (i.e. Cork oak and Holm oak) may benefit from climate changes and expand their ranges much further north than today. In the long run, these species will increase to, on average, more than 32 % of the forest land in Europe (excluding Russia) under the moderate scenario (figure 3) from its current range of 11 %, to more than 28 % under the mild scenario and to more than 40 % of the forest land under the extreme scenario.

Climate change is expected to strongly affect tree species distribution within European forests. By 2100, when Norway spruce might have disappeared in many regions, between 21 and 60 % (34 % on average) of European forest land will be suitable only for a Mediterranean oak forest type with low economic returns for the timber industry. These slow growing forests will also sequester less carbon than today's forests. By 2100 – depending on interest rate and climate scenario applied – the calculated loss varies between 14 and 50 % (28 % on average) of the current value of forest land in Europe. At the end of this century, the loss may total 190 billion Euros on average under a moderate IPCC climate scenario and vary between 60 and 680 billion Euros in all three climate scenarios. 

Is planting drought-adapted species a viable alternative?

Unless the climatic impact is compensated with countermeasures, Europe will have to cope with forests of less economic value and with less contribution to climate change mitigation than today’s more productive forests. At a minimum, adaptive management actions may be necessary, but even the introduction of more productive species from outside Europe such as Douglas Fir, Atlas Cedar, Pine or Eucalyptus species might have to be considered.

In the Swiss Plateau and the Pre-Alps, mainly oak species from Central and Southern Europe as well as beech are expected to replace Norway spruce and Silver fir, if any of these scenarios will come true. This might affect the timber industry, which, since many decades, heavily depends on spruce and fir. Forest owners in Switzerland have to expect that their revenue will decrease unless effective countermeasures are implemented.

* = IPCC climate change scenarios (three out of 40 scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC):

  • B2 (mild; regional, sustainable)
  • A1B (moderate; balanced)
  • A1FI (extreme; fossil-fuels intensive)

Data from more than 6000 forest plots all over Europe analyzed

The international team of scientists estimated the economic impact of projected climate change for a wide range of temperature increases (between 1.4 and 5.8°C, on average, until 2100). In addition, they used a database of 6129 forest plots, regularly distributed across Europe on a 16x16 km grid covering about 2.06 mio km2 of forest land and a high-resolution model that predicts presence or absence of 32 tree species under different climate scenarios in Europe.

Full bibliographic information

Climate change may cause severe loss in the economic value of European forest land. By Marc Hanewinkel, Dominik A. Cullmann, Mart-Jan Schelhaas, Gert-Jan Nabuurs, Niklaus E. Zimmermann. Nature Climate Change, online.
Attached files
  • Fig. 2: Potential range of major tree species in Europe for the climate normal period (1950–2000).
  • Fig. 1: Potential range of major tree species in Europe for scenario A1B, (moderate warming 2070–2100).