The Woodland Trust has published a policy paper: “Emergency Tree Plan for the UK – how to increase tree cover and address the nature and climate emergency“
“We are living in a climate emergency and trees must be part of the fightback.Woodland Trust
To have a chance of hitting net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change has stated that the UK needs 1.5 million hectares of additional woodland.
It’s a massive task. But it’s also a huge opportunity to create a better UK for people and wildlife.”
You should read the whole document, since it covers this from many angles – but here on this blog let’s look at one part of this – and what is necessary to make it happen. We will leave the issues related to forestry to others, but you should definitely also read the Forestry Commission document “Managing England’s woodlands in a climate emergency“.
The document sets a new country wide target to reach 19% UK woodland cover by 2050. The current (2019) figure is 13% (10% in England, 15% in Wales, 19% in Scotland and 8% in Northern Ireland). Over the last 20 years the rate of new planting has represented an increase of about 0.05% per year, so maintaining that rate would mean almost 15% cover by 2050. Getting to 19% by 2050 will require a quadrupling of the rate (but to a rate only a little higher than that we saw over the 1970s and 80s.) “Ambitious but realistic” in the words of the Woodland Trust.
There is some nuance in how woodland is defined for statistical purposes, but clearly however you count this up, reaching 19% woodland cover over the next 30 years is not going to be easy – especially when considering recent woodland loss due to pests and diseases and that we expect things to get worse because of climate change.
The Woodland Trust highlights the need to prevent pests and disease, giving actions related to phytosanitation and biosecurity. Indeed, these are important, but they can only do so much so diversity is also key. This includes diversity of species, and also diversity of genetics within species – plus diversity through forest type and management.
Historically, much of the increase in the UK’s forest area has been linked to commercial forestry (especially in Scotland where the vast majority of the recent afforestation has actually happened). This is not to say it does not have environmental, ecological, and social benefits too – but it has dictated species choice and afforestation methods – and there are other motivations and ideals that do not fit to the current model of forest land that returns investment and provides employment. Aside from this, there are forest resilience issues with the current commercial forestry model too.
The Woodland Trust document (page 8) calls for more even afforestation across the whole UK. Since most afforestation is currently in Scotland, this means woodland area increase in England, Wales and Northern Ireland targets are more like 10 times the current rate. (Current rates are historically low though).
The Woodland Trust are clear that their priorities are around protecting, restoring and expanding native woodland – linked to wildlife recovery. They also say that – for the same reasons – they want all development land to have a minimum of 30% tree canopy cover. This % cover is more than enough to count as woodland in the statistics, so long as the land is 0.5 hectares or more – but the Woodland Trust reminds us also that trees outside woodlands, such as hedgerows and lone trees are also important – and should be increased too through agroforestry and street trees.
But despite the headline emphasis on native species, the plan does say “The majority of tree cover expansion should be delivered with native woods and trees, due to the importance of tackling the nature and climate crises together. However, the UK needs significantly higher levels of all types of tree cover, including sustainable production focused plantations, which will often be a mix of native and non-native tree species.” [our emphasis].
At face value, “majority” means more than half, and the report (page 8) gives an estimate that current planting is about 40% native woodland – so it isn’t a huge shift by any means – but there would be changes.
Commercial forestry in the UK is pretty much just softwoods at present and there is only one native conifer species of use for this – Scots pine. Norway spruce might be considered by some nearly native – in the sense that it is native in nearby countries with similar wildlife – but by many it is viewed as being in the same category as our non-native commercial conifer Sitka spruce.
Carbon capture by woodland and in wood products is also presented as a high level priority. It is great to see this text on page 9:
“Plantations focused on timber production also have an important role to play in increasing the UK’s tree cover. The UK needs to support those markets that drive the sustainable management of all types of woodland, including native woodland. These markets can lock carbon into long-lived construction materials, such as timber framing for housing. A thriving and carefully managed timber market can also be good for wildlife and help support woodland expansion.Woodland Trust Emergency Tree plan page 9
Wood products with a long life can play an important role in storing carbon. The most beneficial of these products replace high carbon emitting alternatives. A good example is using timber in construction to replace concrete.”
The recent report by the Committee on Climate Change on land use policies makes similar recommendations. In the report they also say that the non-carbon benefits of afforestation should be encouraged. They give the examples alleviating flood risk and recreation, but as mentioned in the Woodland Trust document there is also biodiverse habitats, improved water quality, soil retention, cultural heritage, timber and non-timber forest products, employment, and benefits for improved mental and physical health.
“Afforestation and agro-forestry. Increasing UK forestry cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050 by planting around 30,000 hectares or more of broadleaf and conifer woodland each year. Together with improved woodland management this would deliver annual emissions sequestration by 2050 of 14 MtCO2e in forests with an additional 14 MtCO2e from harvested materials. Planting trees on agricultural land, while maintaining their primary use (“agroforestry”), could deliver a further 6 MtCO2e savings by 2050. Sustainably managed forests are important for reducing emissions across the economy. They provide a store of carbon in the landscape and harvested wood can be used sustainably for combustion and carbon sequestration in the energy sector (e.g. when used with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology) and as wood in construction, creating an additional stock of carbon in the built environment.”CCC “Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK” (page 8)
So, what would it take to get more commercial forestry – and in particular more wood products going into construction – and to do this with more native species in the mix?
There are plenty of wood based production products made from chips and fibres and some – such as chipboard – don’t have difficult requirements for the type of wood used as the raw material. However, where these can be (and are) made from waste wood it is better for carbon storage to find a higher level use first – one based on sawn timber.
For sawn timber, the species, and growth conditions, matter a lot – and it is not a simple issue. Even glued laminated products, such as glulam and CLT normally require the timber to have been strength graded, and enabling this requires a lot of expensive testing work if it cannot already be done.
Our conifer forests are dominated by spruce, pine, larch, and Douglas-fir. (of these, only Scots pine is a native) – but our broadleaf forests are not really much more diverse – dominated by oak, ash, birch, beech and sycamore. UK grown oak can already be visually graded. Sweet chestnut can be too. But the others would need wood properties work doing. Who should pay for this? And what are the species to concentrate on? We already did a little bit of work on beech, sycamore and birch but it is not nearly enough to properly allow these to be used in construction. This kind of work can take years so we need to be preparing now. It is one thing to advocate planting of native trees for construction products down the line – but who will do the work to make that possible?
We also need to bear in mind that housing and construction have problems too – especially affordability of homes. It is already expensive to buy or rent. The perception of certain types of wood product can be very counterproductive – not everyone can afford solid wood home-grown native hardwoods, or low density housing. One also wonders whether the Woodland Trust’s suggestion of a developer levy that stipulates that a minimum of 10 trees are planted for every new house constructed (page 15) is socially fair.
These are not intended as criticisms of the Woodland Trust’s report – rather a call for thinking about how these kind of plans can be delivered – and not just the trees in the ground.