The price of climate change: EU countries splash out to fight forest fires

A new EU agricultural policy has brought a qualitative change in forest-fire protection. Governments will now spend twice as much as before on measures such as reforestation to reduce soil drying.

Published On: November 8th, 2023

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Wildfires are on the European Union’s agenda. In the farming sector, fire prevention and control costs considerable sums, as does land restoration in the aftermath of fires. It seems clear that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will place much greater emphasis on this issue in the next seven-year EU budget, and that we are witnessing a change of approach.

In 2016, the EU allocated €1.7 billion to mitigate damage caused by forest fires and other natural disasters as part of its rural-development programmes for 2014-2022. In the latest spending round this amount has been increased to €2.2 billion, mainly due to the rising risk of extreme weather due to climate change. There will also be more spending on biotic threats that can follow heatwaves and storms, such as bark-beetle infestations.

Over the same period, around €750 million has been provisionally earmarked for reconstruction after natural disasters and fires. Such work does not always start immediately after the damage (e.g. fire), and the costs are only accounted for later. In other words, the exact sums cannot easily be known until the final payments have been made. Planning is therefore difficult, especially if the restoration work is dependent on natural processes, when spending may be incurred years later.

Among other things, rising temperatures have a tendency to dry out farmed soil. Hungary has a lot of arable land, which catches fire more easily when dry. One obvious solution is alternative land uses which allow more water to be retained in the soil. Zsuzsanna Ujj, programme officer of the Hungarian Association of Nature Conservationists, reminds us that Hungary has lost a significant part of its natural wetlands. In the past, one fifth of the Carpathian Basin was wetland or entirely water-covered.

“Ploughing may improve the soil for a year or two, but in the long term it damages this water-retention capacity,” says the expert. She adds that cereal crops, in particular, do not tolerate surface water, so it is artificially drained. If the area were grassland, it would retain water, which would mitigate soil drought. Zsuzsanna Ujj points out that economic pressures do not encourage such land use. In practice, the most profitable crops are typically animal feed.

At the same time, Zsuzsanna Ujj considers it a major achievement that the new EU agricultural policy is encouraging a turnaround.

“Irrigation is not an economically viable way of producing crops”, she cites by way of example. “You will not be able to irrigate as much as you used to.” We asked Olof Gill, the European Commission’s spokesman on agriculture, what the recent changes mean, and he pointed out that the strategic objective is to increase forest cover.

“The new CAP plans take a lot of account of ongoing climate change and this is reflected in the design of forestry interventions,” says the spokesman. “In projects of afforestation, agroforestry, and forest restoration, the EU is promoting the use of climate-resistant tree species. And while it is important to establish new forests or agroforestry areas, it is also important to modify existing forests to make them more climate-resilient.”

Such investments and commitments are set out in the new CAP Strategic Plan. Forest resilience and adaptation to climate extremes are also being made a part of existing projects.

Current programmes call for the creation of 260,000 hectares of new forest and 16,000 hectares of new agroforestry by 2025. The total of the EU and member states’ contributions is €2.1 billion for afforestation and €40 million for agroforestry, which also covers the maintenance costs of the areas in question.

According to Olof Gill, the 2023-27 framework scheme will consist of twenty-eight CAP strategic plans submitted by the 27 member states (the extra plan came from Belgium, which submitted two plans). Five member states (Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden) have not included forestry-specific interventions in their CAP strategic plans, but have indicated that forestry will be supported by the CAP, for example through national forest funds.

“The CAP Strategic Plans foresee around 180 forest-related interventions for the period 2023-2027, with a total planned public expenditure of €4.2 billion,” the spokesperson explained. This equates to a doubling of resources.

Zsuzsanna Ujj repeatedly stressed the importance of this development, particularly for Hungary. History has been detrimental to Hungary in this area: after the country lost a major part of its forests under the Treaty of Trianon, the authorities responded with large-scale tree-planting. But the reforestation on Hungary’s Great Plain, for example, can be described more as a tree plantation than a forest. As a monoculture, this land is not resilient in the face of climate change and disease. In particular, densely-planted pine forests are full of resin, which makes ideal tinder for forest fires.

“Today, 25 percent of the country is said to be forest, but a large part of this is tree plantations. Forests are a more complex ecosystem. They can, for example, recover more easily after a fire than a habitat in poor condition,” explains the expert.

The European Commission provides two examples of projects that could represent the future. In Poland, 22,500 trees were planted as part of the reforestation of an agricultural area. The beneficiary of the project has committed to planting 1,000 more trees e