German forests return to health

Climate of change: In the West, an environmental triumph; in the Far East, a growing catastrophe
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The Independent Online
They are there at the edge of every German town; inviolable barriers to progress, places of worship for the romantic soul, and the source of angst for a nation living in fear of modernity. In the 1980s the browning belts of oak and pine became the symbol of decline, spawning the most powerful environmentalist movement in the world.

The planet still needs to be saved, so the Greens continue to enjoy the support of one out of every seven German voters, and have excellent prospects of entering the national government next year. But the forests are returning to rude health.

"Studies going back to 12 years show that initial pessimistic forecasts of the imminent death of our forests were false," states the government's first report on the nation's woodlands. The report, published yesterday, says that the condition of trees has been improving since 1994.

In that year, 36 per cent of all German trees appeared to be undamaged. In 1996, 43 per cent received a clean bill of health. In the same period, the proportion of severely damaged trees has fallen from 25 per cent to less than 20 per cent.

Although the scientific jury is still out on the exact causes of the disease which gripped Europe's forests in the past decade, the government's experts attribute much of the damage to pollutants. Nowhere in the 80- page document is acid rain mentioned, but the acid-forming sulphur dioxide gas is singled out as one of the chief culprits.

Such diagnosis certainly fits in with the alleged cure. The government pats itself on the back for passing anti-emission laws which were aimed at reducing the noxious fumes held responsible for the epidemic.

The first such law was enacted in 1983, in response to pressure from environmentalists. As a result of these measures, Germans now drive the cleanest cars in the world, mandatorily equipped with catalytic converters. The greening of industry appears to have been less successful, as any visit to the belching towers of the Ruhr can attest.

But at least the car is off the hook, to the great joy of Germany's most powerful lobby. The government report appears to show that technology can be harnessed to the benefit of the environment, and progress is not always destructive.

Yet the Greens still carp, pointing out that low-emission engines developed in response to stringent German laws still cause a lot of pollution when driven at full throttle, as they tend to be on the country's unrestricted motorways. And while houses are not allowed to be built in green belts, new roads continue to eat into the forests which cover 30 per cent of the country's surface.

The German Forestry Council is also sceptical about the rosy picture presented by the government. Yesterday it reacted to the report by pointing out that 80 per cent of German land remains acidic to a depth of 30cm (11in). As for the government's measurements, the Forestry Council said the official experts' method of assessing tree damage might be flawed. The majority of opinion, however, tends to go along with the view that the forests are recovering. But why that may be so is as unresolved as the question of what caused their illness in the first place.

What is beyond dispute is that the biggest source of pollution in Central Europe disappeared with the Iron Curtain. East German lignite-burning power-plants are bankrupt and much of the heavy industry of former Czechoslovakia has folded. The forests have been saved probably not by catalytic converters, but by the demise of Communism.