Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

First signs of carbon sink saturation in European forest biomass


European forests are seen as a clear example of vegetation rebound in the Northern Hemisphere; recovering in area and growing stock since the 1950s, after centuries of stock decline and deforestation. These regrowing forests have shown to be a persistent carbon sink, projected to continue for decades, however, there are early signs of saturation. Forest policies and management strategies need revision if we want to sustain the sink.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Trends in increment, removals and sink strength for European forests.
Figure 2: Average yearly gross deforestation in 1990–2010.
Figure 3


  1. Kaupi, P. E., Mielikainen, K. & Kuusela, K. Biomass and carbon budget of European forests, 1971 to 1990. Science 256, 70–74 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Nabuurs, G. J., Schelhaas, M. J., Mohren, G. M. J. & Field, C. B. Temporal evolution of the European Forest sector carbon sink 1950–1999. Glob. Change Biol. 9, 152–160 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Pan, Y. et al. A large and persistent carbon sink in the world's forests. Science 333, 988–993 (2011).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Ciais, P. et al. Carbon accumulation in European forests. Nature Geosci. 1, 1–5 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Vilén, T. Reconstructed forest age structure in Europe 1950–2010. Forest Ecol. Manage. 286, 203–218 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Kahle, H. P. et al. (eds) Causes and Consequences of Forest Growth Trends in Europe—Results of the RECOGNITION Project (Research Report 21, European Forest Institute, 2008).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  7. Bellassen, V. et al. Reconstruction and attribution of the carbon sink of European forests 1950–2000. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 3274–3292 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Tomppo, E., Gschwantner, T., Lawrence, M. & McRoberts, R. E. (eds) National Forest Inventories Pathways for Common Reporting (Springer, 2010).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  9. State of Europe's Forests 2011: Status and Trends in Sustainable Forest Management in Europe (FOREST EUROPE, UNECE and FAO, 2011).

  10. De Vries, W. & Posch, M. Modelling the impact of nitrogen deposition, climate change and nutrient limitations on tree carbon sequestration in Europe for the period 1900–2050. Env. Poll. 159, 2289–2299 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Piao, S. et al. Changes in satellite-derived vegetation growth trend in temperate and boreal Eurasia from 1982 to 2006. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 3228–3239 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Kint, V. et al. Radial growth change of temperate tree species in response to altered regional climate and air quality in the period 1901–2008. Climatic Change 115, 343–363 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Piovesan, G. et al. Drought-driven growth reduction in old beech (Fagussylvatica L.) forests of the central Apennines, Italy. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 1–17 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. European Forest Sector Outlook Study II 2010–2030 ECE/TIM/SP/28 (UNECE/FAO, 2011).

  15. Böttcher, H., Verkerk, P. J., Gusti, M., Havlik, P. & Grassi, G. Projection of the future EU forest CO2 sink as affected by recent bioenergy policies using two advanced forest management models. Glob. Change Biol. Bioenergy. 4, 773–783 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. UNFCCC Country submissions;

  17. Corine Land Cover 1990–2006 Changes for Europe (EEA, 2012).

  18. Köhler, R., Olschofsky, K. & Gerard, G. (eds) Land Cover Change In Europe from the 1950s to 2000: Results of the BIOPRESS Project (Institute for World Forestry, 2006).

    Google Scholar 

  19. The European Environment — State and Outlook 2010: Land Use (EEA, 2010).

  20. Schlüter, O. Die Siedlungsräume Mitteleuropas in Frühgeschichtlicher Zeit: Part 1 Vol. 61 (Forschungen zur Deutschen Landeskunde, 1952).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Schelhaas, M. J., Nabuurs, G. J. & Schuck, A. Natural disturbances in the European forests in the 19th and the 20th centuries. Glob. Change Biol. 9, 1620–1633 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. European Forests — Ecosystem Conditions and Sustainable Use (EEA, 2008).

  23. Grassi, G., Den Elzen, M. G. J., Hof, A., Pilli, R. & Federici, S. The role of the land use, land use change and forestry sector in achieving Annex I reduction pledges. Climatic Change 115, 873–881 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Luyssaert, S. et al. Old growth forests as global carbon sink. Nature 455, 213–215 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Harmon, M. E., Ferrell, W. K. & Franklin, J. F. Effects on carbon storage of conversion of old-growth forests to young forests. Science 247, 699–702 (1990).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Nabuurs, G. J. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Metz, B. et al.) 541–584 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Nabuurs, G. J. et al. Hotspots of the carbon cycle in European forests. Forest. Ecol. Manage. 256, 194–200 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. World Forest Inventory (FAO, 1960).

  29. European Timber Trends and Prospects 1950 to 2000 (FAO, 1976).

  30. The Forest Resources of the ECE Region: Europe, the USSR, North America (UNECE, 1985).

  31. The Forest Resources of the Temperate Zones: UN-ECE/FAO 1990 Forest Resource Assessment (UNECE/FAO, 1992).

  32. Forest Resources of Europe, CIS, North America, Australia, Japan and New Zealand ECE/TIM/SP/17 (UNECE /FAO, 2000).

  33. ForesStat roundwood production quantity (FAOSTAT, 2011); available via

  34. Forest Product Conversion Factors for the UN-ECE Region ECE/TIM/DP/49 (UNECE, 2010).

  35. Gardiner, B. et al. Destructive Storms in European Forests; Past And Forthcoming Impacts Final report (DG Environment, 2010).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the institutions to which they are affiliated, nor the position of the funding agencies. We are grateful to Lauri Hetemaki of European Forest Institute and to Pep Canadell of the Global Carbon Project for comments on an early draft. We thank national data correspondents who contributed to international statistics and Mart-Jan Schelhaas for an update of Fig. 3. This work is related to and partly done in connection with the COST Action Echoes (FP0703) and the EU funded projects Motive, Trees4Future, Volante, and GHG-Europe (Project Numbers 226544, 284181, 265104 and 244122). Joy B-Burough carried out an English language check.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



G.N. did the Fig. 1 analyses, interpretations, and wrote large parts of the paper. M.L. and P.J.V. contributed to interpretation and writing of the manuscript. K.G. provided the deforestation data based on CLC in Fig. 2, and wrote parts of the section on deforestation. P.D. contributed to writing and provided data from UN-ECE/FAO sets. R.M. contributed to interpretations, writing, and provided data from UN-ECE/FAO sets. G.G. contributed to interpretations, writing, and provided data from UNFCCC datasets.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gert-Jan Nabuurs.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Nabuurs, GJ., Lindner, M., Verkerk, P. et al. First signs of carbon sink saturation in European forest biomass. Nature Clim Change 3, 792–796 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing