Forests act as a carbon sink, where the uptake, or removal of carbon from the atmosphere, exceeds the amount of carbon released.

Forests are considered sources when they emit more than they remove. Forests emit carbon through respiration and decay when disturbances (harvesting, fires, insects, storms, droughts and floods) occur. Significant non-CO2 emissions occur via the drainage of organic soils and can exceed the emissions from forest fires.

Removals and emissions of greenhouse gasses are determined by natural disturbances and forest management activities.

The annual net additional CO₂ to the total storage is small (1-2% per year) compared to the existing carbon storage in the forest biomass and soils. It explains why it is so difficult to measure the net carbon sink or source of a forest.

Development of the carbon sink in EU forest biomass and soils since 1990

European forests act as a carbon sink as more carbon is absorbed than released.
However, the sink fluctuates significantly due to a variety of reasons. For example, storm damages in 2007 caused a reduction in forest carbon sink from forests throughout Europe.
In 2009 and 2010, the sink was more significant due to a decline in harvests under the economic crisis. Over the last ten years, the sink have appeared smaller.
How large a sink can be expected from EU forests will depend on forest management, impacts of climate and disturbances.

The total carbon sinks in EU forest biomass and soils, including afforestation and deforestation, have decreased since 2008. An increase means a smaller sink, a decrease means a larger sink.

1. The "deforestation" includes only the results from Forest land converted to Cropland, Grassland, Settlements and Other land
2. The figures show the net values which are the sum of the gain and losses.

Total Forest Land in EU27, net emissions and net removals


Total Forest Land in EU27


Carbon stocks in forest biomass 1990-2020 and the annual change


Mt C-stock* in 1990

Mt C-stock in 2000

Mt C-stock in 2010

Mt C-stock in 2015

Mt C-stock in 2020

Annual change 1990-2020, Mt C-stock

Annual change 1990-2020, %

Annual change 2010-2020, Mt C-stock

Annual change 2010-2020, %

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Carbon stocks in forest biomass 1990-2020

The amounts of carbon stored in forests differ greatly across Europe. Most carbon in biomass in Europe is stored in Central Europe where around 92 tonnes C/ha is stored, while in Southern Europe around 40 tonnes C/ha is stored.

The carbon stock in biomass in Europe has increased steadily in all regions from 1990 to 2020 reaching 9551.7 M tonnes for the EU27 in 2020.

Total forest biomass carbon stocks, by region, 1990-2020


Annual change in total forest biomass carbon stocks, by region, 1990-2020 and 2010-2020

The carbon stock is highest in North and Central-West. The major reason for the observed changes is that growth exceeded cuttings and mortality.

Central-East Europe experienced the largest annual changes in carbon stocks in biomass from 1990 to 2020. For the EU27, it amounts to +90.2 Mt C per year for the period 1990-2020 and to +118 Mt C per year for the period 2010-2020.

Annual change in total forest biomass carbon stocks in EU27, by region, 1990-2020


Annual change in total forest biomass carbon stocks in EU27, by region, 2010-2020


Forests remove carbon from the atmosphere and accumulate it in five different pools:
- above-ground biomass (stem, leaves, branches),
- below-ground biomass (roots),
- deadwood,
- litter,
- soil;

In European forests, most of the carbon is stored in the soil (53.2%) and in the living biomass (37.9%).

Net removals and emissions from different carbon pools

The net carbon removal of forest is highest in biomass.
The time carbon persist in a certain pool differs.

While the carbon in fresh litter can be released to the soil or atmosphere in months or years, carbon stored in deadwood can remain there for decades.

Changes in carbon stock of Forest Land in EU27