Press Releases Remarks by President von der Leyen at the plenary session of the New European Bauhaus goes Into the Woods event

Remarks by President von der Leyen at the plenary session of the New European Bauhaus goes Into the Woods event

Thank you very much, Prime Minister Marin, dear Sanna,

Prime Minister Kallas, dear Kaja,

Deputy Prime Minister Ebba Busch,

Distinguished guests and dear friends,

It is a pleasure to be here with you. Indeed, we are a relatively short drive from Helsinki and we are in the heart of nature. I could not think of a better place than this one to discuss the importance of forests. We are learning every day about the immense role these rich and complex ecological systems play for the health of people but of course also for the health of our planet. Europe’s 400 billion trees absorb almost 9% of our continent’s greenhouse gas emissions. For example, by retaining water, they help to prevent floods and droughts, and they even stabilise rainfall patterns by shaping the clouds we see in the sky. Forests are livelihoods, energy, building materials, and – of course – economic growth and many important jobs. New, innovative products are being developed. Wood-based products have an enormous potential to replace fossil-based products. I am very much looking forward to learning more about all this today at this conference. So let us have a look at the forests. For thousands of years, forests have been for us an enchanted place of mystery and magic, as well as modern science. In our oldest fairy tales and folktales, forests are home – and you know it all – to spirits, wise animals, wizards and healers. Today, more than 25% of our medicines still originate in rainforest plants. Forests are, in the widest sense of the word, part of who we are. And they must be our shared responsibility. Because we all know that today, our forests globally are in danger.

Near my home town in Hanover, that is the northern part of Germany, there is a forest that I have known for decades. Whenever I come home, I take a walk in this forest. In the recent years, I have seen this forest withering. Pests are thriving in our warming climate. You know all the signs of this development. Also here in the North, forests are changing with the climate. This summer, wildfires in the European Union released an amount of carbon that is equivalent to the annual emissions of around five million cars. We know that scientists are debating whether forests in Europe are carbon sinks or rather net carbon emitters. Whatever the outcome of this debate is, there is certainly one point we can all agree on: Healthy forests are our strongest allies to fight for a healthy planet. We need to do more to save and better manage our forests. This is what brings us here today to this conference.

Let me begin with the global picture. In the last three decades, an area that is larger than the whole European Union has been lost to deforestation. And we all have a responsibility in this. For example, consumption in the European Union is said to be responsible for about 10% of these losses. But now, with the European Green Deal, we have decided not only to address the problem but to be part of the solution. Our regulation on deforestation-free products, for example, is set to be adopted next month, just in time for the COP15 in Montreal. Our message is very clear: Europe is cleaning up its supply chains – for products that trigger deforestation. This marks a turning point in the global fight against deforestation. Because the regulation addresses not only the illegal deforestation, but all forms of deforestation that cuts down trees without replanting them. Soon, only products that are not based on deforestation will be allowed into our Single Market.

But we also know that the solution cannot only be a simple ban. Because forests are an important economic and also cultural factor. So we need to give an alternative to deforestation to those local communities who depend so much on forests for their livelihoods. Like for example creating new jobs; sharing know-how in conservation of forests; supporting new supply chains for sustainably sourced timber. Last year in Glasgow, I signed a EUR-1-billion global forest pledge for the European Union. And this year, at the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, I signed five forest partnerships with five different countries to put this pledge into action. And it is exactly what we are working on to make sure that there is an alternative to deforestation for these communities. Just to give you an example: Wood processing in Guyana, or forest products like honey in Uganda, or sustainable tourism in the Republic of Congo. So we do not only want to ban the deforestation or fight the deforestation but we also want to really create viable alternatives. The local communities can thus make a living by protecting and by respecting their forests. This is how we address the global challenge of deforestation: through closer cooperation and giving people a sustainable alternative – that is good for them and good for the planet.

Here in Europe, we have decades of experience in sustainable forestry. For example, here in Finland, forest resource data has been regularly collected since the 1920s already. With this knowledge, together, we can build on your experience, and take it to the next level. This is my second point. Let us join forces to nurture our forests’ biodiversity and bioeconomy. Let us shift the incentives from short-lived uses of natural resources to long-lived and circular ones. This is the aim of the European land-use revision. The final missing link is a proposal for the certification of carbon removal. It is a quality guarantee to people and organisations who want to fund carbon removal activities. Not only can we then better monitor that our forests remain carbon sinks, but foresters and forest owners will be recognised and rewarded for the time and the care they invest to keep our forests healthy. And as you said, Sanna, I think it was 60% of the forests here in Finland that is owned by private people. So let us reward them for the care they are giving and the nurturing they are providing to their forests.

These measures help ensure that timber is sustainably harvested, not just in your countries here but also across the European Union. So this covers the supply side of the equation. On the demand side, we need to do more to promote the use of long-lived biomaterials, like quality wood for construction. This is indeed where the New European Bauhaus comes into play. We want to improve people’s lives by designing and building sustainably. To see what I mean, you just have to look around in this building, the Finnish Nature Centre, which is a cross-laminated timber building. When it was built in 2013, it was the first of its kind in Northern Europe. Today, 3% of the overall material input in the European construction is timber. So I would say that it is still a niche, but with a big room for improvement. And the demand is growing fast. And the New European Bauhaus wants to drive this transformation. You might know that the original Bauhaus movement, that was founded in 1919, explored specifically new construction methods and new materials, at that time it was of course concrete and steel. But at that time already, there was a great Finnish architect, known around the world. His name is Alvar Aalto – very famous. He was a pioneer at that time already. Because he loved to work with wood, he used wood and created icons of wooden furniture. Actually, if you look at them today, they are still extremely modern in their design – so outstanding.

Today, we are lucky, because we have a whole generation of  young architects, designers and engineers that want to redefine our way of building and living. They are rediscovering natural materials such as timber. And they have understood how smart nature is to find solutions and they try to understand these nature-based solutions and to transform them into our world of construction for example. We all know that today building with timber could save up to 40% of carbon emissions in comparison to concrete. That is a huge figure. By keeping the carbon inside the wood, one day timber could turn our homes and even entire cities into carbon sinks. To some of you, this may sound like a dream. But in Finland, as well as in Estonia and Sweden, you are already showing Europe how this works, how this is possible and doable. You have centuries of experience in building out of wood. We need your experience, now more than ever, to encourage sustainable forestry and lead the next revolution in architecture. The New European Bauhaus aims to be a movement that brings together like-minded people, to generate new collaborations and new ideas, and bring to a wider public the many wonderful things that are being done by pioneers like you.

This brings me to my third and final point: let us empower people to lead and drive this change. The growing importance that forests and construction will play in the green transition requires new skills – or perhaps it is old skills rediscovered. We need more rangers, engineers, chemists, timber craftsmen and data specialists – you name it. And we know that these skills are in too short supply today. There is a recent report by the IFO Institute that found that nearly 35% of EU construction firms report a shortage of skilled workers. Skilling has to grow with the transformation we are aiming at. There will be no green transformation if we do not have the skills and if there are no people who drive the transformation. That is why we have proposed to make the year 2023 the European Year of Skills. The idea is to better match the different skilling strategies with the economy’s needs for specific skills in the labour market. It is about bringing industry, forest owners, trade unions, universities, and training providers together. An approach that we are pioneering with our Pact for Skills. We have created 12 large-scale partnerships, offering skilling opportunities to six million European citizens of working age. But we need much more than this.

This is why I am happy to announce today that we are launching a New European Bauhaus Academy. The Academy will have three major priorities. First of all, it is about fostering green and digital skills in construction. We want to reskill and upskill at least three million construction workers in the next five years because we need them now to drive the transformation. The second point is: We need more research and development, and innovation in this crucial sector. And for that, we need increased funding. Therefore, Horizon Europe – you all know our research programme that is highly renowned worldwide – will soon make a call for nature-based material demonstrators, worth EUR 10 million. We want to know what is out there, we want to know the innovative ideas to then develop them and bring them to the market. I am grateful to John Schellnhuber for his initiative and advice on this issue. We also want to learn from the New European Bauhaus how regulation can incentivise the use of quality nature-based solutions and biomaterials. And finally, the new Academy will have a very strong digital focus. We want to provide online courses in sustainable forestry, design, and wood construction, and thus basically create a truly European forest academy. And we will do that together with you, the Nordic Bauhaus. Many thanks for joining this. The Commission will make available an additional EUR 1 million. I want to thank all three of you for your enormous commitments. It is your network of universities, of architects, of urban planners, of construction companies. You are the leaders in the field of sustainability. We need your knowledge and we need your network to bring the best together. I think we can multiply your experience and your innovations all across the European Union and across the world. Because we are perhaps one small part of a global ecosystem, but, if we do it right, we can be a big part of the solution.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You all know the old saying when people sometimes miss the obvious. We say: You lose sight of the forest for the trees. Here today, we do the exact opposite. We are zooming out and it is about the big picture that we want to discuss. It is about embracing the importance of forests for our lives and our livelihoods. It is about forests as our home, forests as our economic foundation and of course forests as our best allies to fight climate change.

Many thanks.

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