Riparian forests (RF) growing along streams, rivers and lakes comprise more than 2% of the forest area in the Nordic countries (considering a 10 m wide zone from the water body). They have special ecological functions in the landscape. They receive water and nutrients from the upslope areas, are important habitats for biodiversity, have large soil carbon stores, but may emit more greenhouse gases (GHG) than the uplands. In this article, we present a review of the environmental services related to water protection, terrestrial biodiversity, carbon storage and greenhouse gas dynamics provided by RF in the Nordic countries. We discuss the benefits and trade-offs when leaving the RF as a buffer against the impacts from upland forest management, in particular the impacts of clear cutting. Forest buffers are effective in protecting water quality and aquatic life, and have positive effects on terrestrial biodiversity, particularly when broader than 40 m, whereas the effect on the greenhouse gas exchange is unclear.