How have forest resources in the European Union developed?

Author: Harald Mauser (EFI)

Deforestation is still ongoing at global level (FAO, 2020). However, forest resources in the EU 27 (EU in the following) have expanded continuously since the 1950s (Fuchs et al., 2013). This allows more options and flexibility in using these resources for achieving different policy goals compared to other parts of the world with ongoing deforestation trends or lower forest cover (Hetemäki et al., 2022). This document provides information on the development of forest resources in the EU and contrasting trends in the rest of the world. It also discusses the main drivers for this development in the EU. The findings presented build on quantitative analyses of data sourced from official databases as well as from scientific publications and public documents (see Methods and Data used). The development of other forest characteristics (e.g., addressing economic, employment, cultural, biodiversity and nature conservation aspects) are not covered here.


  • Forest resources have increased in the EU in the past seven decades (forest area +37%, growing stock +138%), while globally forest area and growing stock is decreasing.
  • Based on this development, between 1961 and 2020, roundwood production from forests in the EU increased by 76%, with the annual felling volumes always smaller than the annual increment.
  • Several drivers (e.g., natural forest expansion, afforestation, soil recovery) are responsible for the increase of EU forest resources in the 20th century. To assess their future dynamics, regional analyses integrating natural, socio-economic and cultural aspects are needed.

1 Development of forest resources in the EU since 1950

Forest resources in the EU expanded significantly over the past 70 years (Figure 1). From 1950 to 2020, there has been an increase in forest area (+37%) and a steep increase in growing stock (+138%), in net annual increment (+95%) and in wood production (+87%). These findings are based on data series for 20 of the EU 27 member states (Verkerk, 2015, updated based on EUROSTAT, FAOSTAT and FAO FRA. See Methods and Data used). The 20 countries included* represented in 1990 ca. 93% of the forest area, ca. 91% of the growing stock and ca. 96% of the roundwood production from forests in all EU 27 countries. Their development since 1950 can be therefore considered as representative for the overall evolution of forest resources in the EU 27 during this period.

*Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.


Figure 1: Changes in Forest Area, Growing Stock per Hectare, Net Annual Increment and Annual Wood Removals per Hectare in European Forests 1950-2020. Data are indexed to the year 1990 (i.e., 1990=1). Source: Verkerk (2015), updated for the period 2010-2020.

Forest resources expanded in parallel with growing population and economic output. The EU is a rather densly populated region with a population increase of 35% between 1950 and 2020 (UN Population Statistics, 2021). The region experienced a strong economic growth after World War II, in particular from 1950 onwards. GDP per capita grew between 1950 and 2018 by more than 500% (Maddison Project Database, 2020). In other world regions, such population and economic growth has led to a reduction in forest resources, although the relationship between these developments is complex (Mather and Needle, 2000; Rudel et al., 2005). In some regions, recuperation started from 1990 onwards (see Figure 3).

2 Development of forest resources 1990-2020 in the EU and the rest of the world

For this period, complete data sets are available that allow the trends in the EU to be compared in detail with those in the rest of the world.

2.1 Development of forest area 1990-2020

In the EU, the forest area increased from 1990 to 2020 by about 10% or 14 million hectares, equal to the total land area of Hungary and Slovakia combined. Forests today cover 40% of the EU territory (approx. 159 million hectares, forest cover in the rest of the world on average is 31%), and another 5% is covered by “Other Wooded Land”**  (approx. 21 million hectares). In 2020, forest area in the EU was 4% of the global total. 

** Other wooded land is defined as "Land not classified as “Forest”, spanning more than 0.5 ha; with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of 5-10%, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ; or with a combined cover of shrubs, bushes and trees above 10%.


Figure 2: Development of Forest Area 1990-2020 (index for 1990 = 100).

In 2020, about 85% of forests in the EU were available for wood supply, while 15% are not available due to environmental, social or economic restrictions (Forest Europe, 2020). The area of “Forest Available for Wood Supply” (FAWS) increased by approximately 4% over the period 1990-2020, a smaller rate than for the total forest area. This means that more forests are managed for other societal interests or are left unmanaged. Inconsistent reporting or definition issues may also explain part of the different rates of increase.

The area of protected forests in the EU has grown since 1990, in particular due to the establishment of protected areas under the EU Natura 2000 framework. Data for this time series are rather incomplete. Only 11 member states reported data for 1990 and 2015, indicating a 317% increase of protected forest areas in these countries for the period 1990-2015.

In the rest of the world, according to official statistics, forest area declined on average by 5% or 191.5 million hectares in the period 1990-2020, with regional variations (Figure 3). Besides the EU, in Asia and Oceania the forest area also increased. However, especially in Africa and South America, the area decreased at a higher rate, resulting in a global reduction of forest area between 1990 to 2020. However, a recent study using remote sensing data argues that worldwide tree cover has increased between 1982 and 2016 (Song et al., 2018). This is the result of a net loss in the tropics being outweighed by a net gain in other regions.


Figure 3: Global Annual Forest Area Net Change by Decade and Region 1990-2020 (UN FRA 2020, page XII).

2.2 Development of growing stock 1990-2020

In the EU, growing stock (i.e., total volume of timber in forests) increased approximately by 42% from 19.4 billion m3 in 1990 to 27.6 billion m3 in 2020 (Figure 4). In 2020, growing stock in the EU was 5% of the global total. On average, in the rest of the world, growing stock in forests decreased by about 2% (11.5 billion m3) since 1990.


Figure 4: Development of Growing Stock 1990-2020.

While the growing stock in forests available for wood supply (FAWS) grew by about 30%, roundwood production in the EU has increased as well.

2.3 Development of carbon stock and roundwood production 1990-2020

In the EU, the volume of carbon stored in living biomass in forests increased by 43% between 1990 and 2020 (Figure 5). On average, in the rest of the world, carbon stored in living biomass in forests decreased by about 2% in the same period.


Figure 5: Development of Carbon stored in living Biomass in Forests and of EU Roundwood Production 1990-2020 (2019 data for EU carbon stored).

Despite the increase in roundwood production by 112 million m3 between 1990 and 2020 (from 387 million m3 to 499 million m3) the carbon stock also increased due to the simultaneous increases in forest area and growing stock.

The EU was and still is highly self-sufficient in terms of its roundwood consumption, albeit with substantial internal wood trade between member states. According to FAOSTAT (2022), the trade balance in the period 1990-2018 resulted in annual net imports from countries outside the EU of 2-6% of the volume of domestic roundwood production, decreasing since then. In 2020, the EU was a net roundwood exporter for the first time since 1961.

3 Drivers for the Development of Forest Resources in the EU

The increase of forest resources in the EU is due to several main drivers that played out regionally and temporally to a varying degree:

  • Natural forest expansion on abandoned pasture and agricultural areas (Bradshaw, 2004). Land owners either accepted or could not prevent this development, or did not recognise it all, due to unclear ownership rights or lacking interest in land use planning on their own property.
  • Afforestation efforts in the 20th century in many EU regions. In particular after World War II (Gold, 2003; Fuchs et al., 2015), public and private money was invested in afforestation (and also in forest management).
  • Forest age class effects linked to forest expansion and afforestation (Petrescu et al., 2020), as many of the newly established forest stands entered a development phase with high tree growth resulting in growing biomass volumes per hectare (Vilen et al., 2012). 
  • Recovery of degraded forest soils from long-lasting nutrient depletion due to agricultural uses in previous centuries, such as litter raking (Glatzel, 1991) or green leaf pruning. In many EU regions, these uses were terminated during the 20th century (McGrath et al., 2015), latest after World War II (Gimmi et al., 2008). This allowed forest soils to re-accumulate nutrients with a positive impact on tree growth, but also on the growing carbon sink (Erb et al., 2013). 
  • Effects due to human-induced general environmental changes (e.g., nitrogen deposition, increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, global warming). These changes mostly stimulated forest growth, depending on regional circumstances. CO2 fertilization is likely to be responsible for increased biomass production, but questions remain on the magnitude, and on how much of the change is attributable to increased CO2 from fossil fuel emissions and land-use change (Walker et al., 2021). Nitrogen deposition seems an important driver of growth of managed European forests (Etzold et al., 2020). Wherever sufficient water supply has continued, increasing air temperature prolonged the growing season and boosted biomass productivity (Collalti et al., 2020), in particular in higher latitudes and altitudes where low temperatures restricted plant growth. 
  • Improved forest management practices aiming to increase forest productivity (Forest Europe, 2003) by improved tree breeding, species and provenance selection, planting methods, thinning regimes, drainage, and fertilization. Growing demand for wood-based products due to population growth and economic prosperous development (Solberg, 200x) incentivised active forest management to increase timber production and wood supply. 
  • Annual wood harvesting volume remaining below the annual increment (Forest Europe, 2003; Forest Europe, 2020), allowing for accumulation of biomass in forests and carbon stored there. To a limited extent this is also due to reliance on wood resources imported from other parts of the world.

In the future, new patterns of forest disturbances, loss of forest area due to climate change, growing demand for non-wood products and other ecosystem services, and an evolving EU policy framework relevant for forest management and the use of wood may have an increased influence. In general, the power of drivers and their precise impact in the 21st century is uncertain but is expected to differ across EU regions. A comprehensive, region-specific analyses of drivers and their impacts on the future development of forests in the EU is currently missing. Such an assessment would have to address natural, socio-economic and cultural aspects as well as land-use histories by applying interdisciplinary approaches to identify synergies and trade-offs as forest ecosystems are complex and one size does not fit all. These integrated approaches are needed to increase simultaneously the ecological, economic and social value of forests in the EU (Palahí, 2021). 

Information on data and methods

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Published on 21.11.2022