How climate change is threatening Germany’s forests

In the past three years, Germany has lost thousands of hectares of forest due to the ever warmer and drier climate. There are calls for new funding to help forest owners adapt to new conditions.

Everstorfer Forest damage
Uprooted and broken trees lie in the Everstorfer Forest after a storm in February 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

What’s going on?

Over the past few years, the effects of climate change in Germany have become ever more noticeable. Along with more intense cold and heat spells, the country saw disastrous flash floods in 2021 that claimed more than a hundred lives and caused billions of euros of damage to homes and infrastructure. 

However, for the northern regions of the country in particular, it’s been the lack of rainfall and intense heat that has caused the most concern among agricultural workers and forest owners. 

They argue that Germany’s iconic woodland could become a victim of the climate crisis if more isn’t done to help the forests adapt. If that happens, they say, one of the major absorbers of CO2 in the atmosphere would no longer be available in the fight against global warming. 

Max von Elverfeldt, chairman of the family business Land und Forst, told DPA that a lack of investment in conserving forests would primarily affect future generations.

“Our forests are our most successful climate activists, without them we will not achieve our climate goals,” he explained.

How bad is the damage so far? 

According to Andreas Bitter, president of the Federation of German Forest Owners’ Associations (AGDW), more than 400,000 hectares of forest area have already been destroyed by the effects of heat and drought since 2018.

Back in February, an intense storm destroyed swathes of a forest in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, ripping 60-year-old trees out by their roots and affecting around half a million cubic metres of land. 

Speaking ahead of a meeting of the state agriculture ministers on Monday, Bitter warned: “Time is pressing. The government must act.” 

He said funding for forest adaptation to climate change should be implemented quickly, otherwise it would be too late.

The president of the German Forestry Council, Georg Schirmbeck, put the material damage caused by drought and bark beetle infestation at €12.5 billion, spread over three years of crisis.

“Assets were literally destroyed,” he told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

What exactly are forest owners calling for?

Campaigners primarily want additional funding to be freed up and used for projects that will make forests better equipped to deal with the changing climate. 

According to Schirmbeck, the transformation of the forests could cost around €50bn in total, with at least €1 billion in support needed each year from the state. 

The president of the German Forestry Council is also advocating for stricter guidelines on the sustainable use of wood.

“The renewable raw material wood, both as a building material and as a final energy source, is an important element in achieving the German government’s climate goals with the move away from fossil fuels,” said Schirmbeck.

Tegel forest in Berlin

Two cyclists enjoy sunny weather in Tegel Forest in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peer Grimm

Ahead of the meeting, the environmental association BUND laid out a number of proposals for preserving forests in the long term.

“Our forests have been weakened by several years of drought, over-intensive forestry and the large-scale cultivation of conifers,” BUND chairman Olaf Bandt told RND on Monday. “We demand an ecological forest turnaround.”

For example, at least one tenth of the forest area must be designated as natural forest and kept out of the hands of foresters. 

In addition, there must be “an immediate stop to logging in publicly owned deciduous forests that are more than 100 years old,” Bandt said. 

The rapid conversion of coniferous forests to deciduous forests and a different approach to wild animals such as deer, which use new plantations as food and thus damage them, are also necessary, he argued. 

READ ALSO: Germany chooses Greenpeace chief as first climate envoy

Are there any other perspectives? 

Yes. Naturally, the timber industry isn’t particularly enamoured with proposals to limit their access to the forest, and have argued that the number of new trees planted each year can easily replace what they remove. 

“It is best for climate protection if the CO2 is stored in wood products or if the wood replaces climate-polluting materials instead of letting it rot unused in the forest,” Denny Ohnesorge, managing director of the German Timber Industry Association (HDH), told RND.

Meanwhile, hunters have argued that the monocultures created by humans over decades is a huge cause of harm in the forests, and that more planting and reforestation is needed. 

Member comments

  1. I’m no expert but here in Hessen it looks to me as though the vast majority of the so called ‘forests’ that have been destroyed were actually just monoculture plantations. Nearly as bad as those vineyards in the Rheingau!

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IN PICTURES: German summer heatwave causes River Rhine to dry up

A hot, dry July made worse by climate change has caused water levels on the Rhine to sink dramatically. It raises the risk that the German economy could run aground as shipping along the river becomes harder.

IN PICTURES: German summer heatwave causes River Rhine to dry up

The prospect of severe, longer-term limits to traffic spells a new headache for the industries lined up on the river’s banks and threatens to further strain Germany’s efforts to wean itself off Russian energy imports as coal counts among key cargo moved on the waterway.

Roberto Spranzi, boss of DTG, a shipping cooperative, says the volumes that his fleet can carry are already limited by the unusually low water levels.

“At the moment we have a capacity where, we have to use three or four vessels where we would normally need one,” Spranzi tells AFP.

Pointing at the worrying ebb at the entrance to the inland port of Duisburg in western Germany, Spranzi notes that “currently it’s at 1.70 metres (5.6 feet) In theory, the normal water level is over two metres”.

Ship on the river rhine

A ship lies on the dried-out bank of the Rhine in Düsseldorf. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

Further up the river in Kaub, a noted bottleneck for shipping where the Rhine runs narrow and shallow, the reference level is forecast to go below 40 centimetres by the end of the week and squeeze traffic further.

As of Friday, the water levels had sunk to 42 centimetres – five centimetres lower than the previous day. 

“We supply factories on the Rhine with their raw materials. When that’s not possible any more — or less often — that’s a threat to German industry, too,” Spranzi says.

READ ALSO: How the Rhine’s low water levels are impacting Germany

Coal power

Around four percent of freight in Germany is carried via its waterways, including the Rhine, which winds its way from Switzerland, along the border with France, through Germany’s industrial heartland and the Netherlands to the sea.

As Berlin turns to mothballed coal power capacity to plug the gap after Russia curtailed its energy deliveries, the Rhine has taken on added
significance as a key artery for coal transport.

But the sinking water level has already led energy providers to warn they may have to limit output.

A ship travels along the dried-up Rhine near the Bayer factory in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Reichwein

Uniper has said the low level of the Rhine may lead to the “irregular operation” of two of its coal plants into September.

EnBW, which runs sites in the southwestern region of Baden-Wurttermberg, has warned that deliveries of the fuel could be restricted.

The dwindling waters have seen “transport costs per tonne rise”, EnBW said in a statement, adding that it had preemptively built stocks of coal earlier in the year.

Alternative routes were available — either by road or rail — but capacity was “tight”, EnBW said.

The Rhine freight restrictions have added to the supply chain disruption seen by industry and increased the risk of scarcity.

Low water levels on the Rhine

Dry ground next to the depleted Rhine in Mainz. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hannes P Albert

Across southern Germany, a shortage of fuel at the pump has been traced back to the dry weather, among other factors.

“Low water levels on the Rhine mean that in this area very important transportation of oil products, such as petrol, diesel or heating oil can’t operate as normal,” says Alexander von Gersdorff, spokesman for the German energy and fuel industry lobby.

READ ALSO: Germany plans 1,000 extra drinking water fountains

Sinking water levels on the Rhine

An aerial view of the Rheinkniebrücke shows dried-out banks and sinking water levels. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Strauch

‘Much earlier’

A 2018 drought, which saw the Rhine’s reference depth at Kaub fall as low as 25 centimetres in October, shaved 0.2 percent off German GDP that year, according to Deutsche Bank Research.

“The low levels have come much earlier this time,” Deutsche Bank Research economist Marc Schattenberg tells AFP.

“If the problems we are now observing last longer (than in 2018), the loss of economic value becomes all the more serious.”

Industrial heavyweights stationed along the Rhine rely on the waterway to ferry goods to and from their sites.

Duisburg-based conglomerate ThyssenKrupp said in a statement it had “taken measures” to assure its supplies of raw materials.

The steelworks from Thyssenkrupp in Duisburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Strauch

The chemical giant BASF, whose Ludwigshafen base sits south of the Kaub choke-point, said its production had not yet been limited by the low water levels, but warned that it could not rule out “reductions for specific units in the coming weeks”.