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Trees for zero?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Climate change and resilience, Woodland creation

Conifer forest beneath hills.

Climate science is complex, and it is easier – at least in the UK – for people to agree on the need for action to combat climate change than to agree on the precise steps we ought to take. One thing pretty much everyone will agree on is that we need to plant more trees. Now that we are committed in law to net zero emissions by 2050, the imperative of tree planting has only got more urgent. The Committee on Climate Change are very clear that the current approach to land use is not sustainable, and we should be aiming for around 30,000 hectares of new woodland in the UK every year – nearly a million hectares by 2050. If it were all in one place (which of course it won’t be) that would mean a new forest the size of Norfolk and Suffolk together.

As Chief Executive of the Forestry Commission, I am excited about this. Growing trees is our business, and trees make a proven, cost-effective contribution to tackling climate change. But I’m also a bit wary. Not just because afforestation on a large scale is incredibly hard to deliver, and will involve really difficult choices about land use change right up and down the country. But also because trees are not just about carbon, and carbon is not just about trees. Even on the scale the Committee on Climate Change wants to see, planting trees can only make a limited contribution to net zero – by 2050, the new trees would absorb perhaps 10% of residual emissions if all other reduction measures are implemented. There is only so much tree planting we can do across the UK, so it’s crucial that emissions are cut across the whole economy. At the same time, it’s vital to recognise that the benefits of forests are wider, and even longer term.

We must think about what we produce from our land. As a nation we produce less food than we eat, and far less timber than we use. In fact we import about 80% of our timber. And we should be using more timber, not less. Timber used in construction locks up carbon for the life of the building, and is far better from an emissions perspective than concrete or other materials. We’ll never be self-sufficient, but while there are many important, different landscapes and habitats we must protect and restore, and rewilding too has a role to play in some areas, in general we should be using our land to produce what we can in a sustainable way. It is not a solution to the climate crisis if we focus only on storing carbon on our own land while we import more and more food and timber from other countries. So we should be planting productive forests – well-designed, diverse woodlands, rich in wildlife and right for the soil and the landscape in each different place – which will help us well beyond the 2050 target date.

The hard land use choices we as a country, and landowners as individuals, are going to have to make in the coming years, if we are serious about achieving net zero, are bound to be guided partly by familiar considerations of financial return. But we should also be guided by new ways of reckoning the costs and benefits, by the principles and methodologies of natural capital. Cropland? Pasture? Peatland? Forest? What’s best for the land will vary greatly from place to place, and we need to be thinking not just about cash or carbon emissions, but also about production of food or timber or biomass, and about biodiversity, water quality, flood management, air quality, recreation and public health.

At the Forestry Commission, we are developing new ways of thinking about these choices and making the best decisions. Yes trees can help us towards net zero, but the right forest in the right place can do so much more than that.

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  1. Comment by Frank Inglis posted on

    The other aspect of the land is that it receives energy from the sun at around 110 watts per square metre and that is where we must get our electricity from when cheap dense fossil fuel energy becomes uneconomic over the next 4 decades. Land "ownership" in the UK and the neo-classical economics used over the last 50 years are going to make the "Net Zero" ambition just that, an ambition. We hardly ever reached our planting programs when the Tax driven "Forestry" of the 80's was at its peak, how are we going to do it in times when the economy and the energy regime are changing so dramatically at the same time? (Never before experienced in our brief history)

  2. Comment by Guido Fawkes posted on

    The UK, and specifically Northern Ireland, England and Wales is/are certainly an international pariah when it comes to woodland creation, China for instance is doing much better. There needs to be a more grass roots up revolution, in which the government and local authorities can play a part, but it will require people and expertise to advise and manage any increased delivery of woodland creation. Yes, land ownership and competing land use is a problem, and a better understanding of land and forest economics will help, but more imaginative woodland design and objectives and an understanding of the barriers to woodland creation (FR did a survey in 2014, which is available on the interweb) is required. However, in the event more landowners come forward to create woodlands, at the present, the FC is woefully staffed to cope and the government grant and regulation systems have become more complex and demanding. Cornwall Council is planning an 8,000ha target for woodland creation over the next 10 years, which at least is planned and staffed, but it will place a huge burden on very limited FC resources. This project may well be rolled out across the country, and Scotland is pushing ahead with a new 12,000ha per year target, which will require more staff and expertise to deliver. I see Scotland is already advertising for woodland officers, which could suck away expertise from England.