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Genetic diversity insurances against climate change for sustainable forest management

Published: 7/12/2009

Climate change is predicted to increase average temperatures by 2–4°C in Europe over the next 50 years and cause considerable changes in regional and seasonal patterns of precipitation. This will alter the environmental conditions to which forest trees in Europe are adapted and create additional challenges for forest management, with consequent impacts on the economic and social benefits derived from forests.

IPGRI and the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) organized a workshop in Paris on 15-16 March 2006 to discuss the role of forest genetic diversity in improving the adaptability of forests to climate change. The workshop was hosted by the French Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery and attended by nearly 80 participants from 25 countries. It was also part of the European forest policy process (Ministerial Conferences on the Protection of Forests in Europe, MCPFE).

The workshop recognized that the impact of climate change on forests will vary in different parts of Europe, bringing with it both threats and opportunities. Forest genetic diversity has an important role in maintaining the resilience of forest ecosystems to the threats (new pests and diseases) and in taking advantage of the opportunities (e.g. longer growing seasons in northern Europe). Policy-makers, managers and forest owners must inevitably make decisions in the face of great uncertainty. Genetic diversity and its appropriate use provide flexibility with respect to forest management and help to reduce the risks associated with climate change.

Widely-distributed tree species in Europe are unlikely to face extinction at the species level due to climate change, but local tree populations are likely to decline, especially at the margins of the distribution ranges. Tree species with scattered or limited distribution are more vulnerable to climate change than widely-distributed tree species and they may face serious threats also at species level. In addition, climate change is also likely to alter competition between tree and other plant species. This may have significant effects on the survival of tree species and even the existence of the present forest habitats in Europe. Subsequently, climate change can have significant impacts on the European forest sector.

The workshop recommended that management of forest genetic diversity should be better linked with national forest programmes. These programmes are already in place in most countries to facilitate continuous dialogue on forest-related issues between various stakeholders within and outside the forest sector. The workshop further recommended that forest management practices that maintain evolutionary processes of forest trees and support natural regeneration should be promoted, especially in areas where long-term natural regeneration is self-sustainable despite climate change.

The discussions also stressed that forest tree adaptation to climate change can be accelerated through tree breeding and transfer of potentially suitable reproductive material. Subsequently, the workshop recommended that the MCPFE process should endorse the development of pan-European guidelines for the transfer of forest reproductive material in Europe on the basis of scientific knowledge. This investigation could be carried out through EUFORGEN which already provides an operational platform for regional collaboration in this field. EUFORGEN should then collaborate with various IUFRO research groups which have established and maintain networks of provenance trials.

The workshop also concluded that the impacts of climate change need to be analyzed in a holistic manner. The European forest research community was urged to carry out more interdisciplinary studies (e.g. tree physiology, forest genetics, pests and diseases, forest management and economics, and modelling) on climate change impact on forests with the support of policy-makers.

The outcomes of the workshop were reported to the MCPFE Round Table meeting, in Wroclaw, Poland on 24-25 April 2006. (executive summary)