Commercial forestry is a vital weapon in the fight against climate change

“With emissions targets looking harder to reach than ever, the world needs to lean into commercial forestry if it wants to alleviate the worst effects of climate change”

Achieving a reduction in CO2 emissions of 40-50% by 2030 is necessary to have a 50% chance of keeping global warming below 1.5°C by mid-century.

Even in the most aggressive reduction scenarios, cumulative greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years are likely to overshoot that critical 1.5°C goal, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent report. In addition to reducing emissions, large-scale Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) may be an important component of the solution.

Natural climate solutions, which provide CO sequestration via ecological restoration and better management of existing land uses, are one of the main kinds of CDR. These strategies rely on photosynthesis, particularly in trees, to act as a carbon capture and storage process and, in some circumstances, improve this sequestration for longer-term or even permanent storage.

Commercial forestry is a vital part of this afforestation and reforestation solution.

While many CDR solutions based on technology are still in their infancy, tree planting is now the only scalable “negative emissions” option. There are also substantial employment, production, and commerce prospects, as well as advantages for biodiversity, wildlife, flood management, health, and more.

The planting of new trees and the restoration of old forests are essential if the United Kingdom is to achieve its climate goals. As they develop, trees store the carbon they’ve taken in through photosynthesis, creating a closed loop of sustainability. One of the most significant carbon storage device on Earth is the world’s existing tree and forest cover. For instance, the United Kingdom’s woods sequester 3.7 billion tonnes of carbon, which is roughly 10 years’ worth of the country’s yearly emissions.

The sorry state of British forests

From its high point in the 1970s and 1980s, when the UK government extensively incentivised planting for wood fibre, the rate of afforestation in the UK today is a mere fraction of what it was then.

This was a direct reaction to the massive tree-cutting that had been going on for millennia. Only 5% of the land was covered by trees before the turn of the twentieth century, and this figure dropped even lower as logging ramped up during World War One. Because of this, the Forestry Commission was established, and it started buying up property to turn into forests.

However, the UK still only has 13% forest cover, with only 7% of native woodlands in good ecological condition. This is in contrast to approximately 40% in continental Europe.

The rate of absorption is expected to decrease in the coming years due to diminishing tree-planting rates and decreasing carbon accumulation as UK forests age. According to Forest Research, the annual rate of CO accumulation by UK woods was over 18 million tonnes in 2020, but this is expected to decrease to around 10 million by 2040.

Official statistics show less than 14,000 hectares were planted in the year to March 31, 2022, despite the Conservative government led by Boris Johnson’s vow to plant 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of new woods per year by 2024. Scotland planted three-quarters of the total with 10,480 hectares.  England planted 2,260 acres. Wales planted 580 acres. And Northern Ireland planted 540 acres.

What should be planted?

Trees vary in their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and in how quickly they mature. Most productive woodlands are comprised of faster-growing, coniferous tree species, which trap carbon much more rapidly in the short- to medium-term. And at the same age, mature conifers (40-50 years old) absorb significantly more carbon than do slower-growing broadleaf tree species. Broadleaf plants, on the other hand, can store more carbon over the course of a century.

The “yield class” indicates the amount of wood (in cubic metres per hectare) added through annual growth, and is used by the UK forestry sector and the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to calculate the productivity of trees in terms of absorbing carbon. Due to the carbon content of the additional wood, faster growth and enhanced carbon sequestration are associated with its use.

Broadleaf trees, for instance, typically have a yield class of four to eight (the CCC gives an average yield of seven for broadleaves), which means they produce four to eight cubic metres of wood per hectare per year. Oaks grow at around 6, and wild cherries at around 8.

While the CCC uses a yield class of 13 for average conifers (based on data from 2003), it is generally agreed that this number is too low and should be yield class 16 or higher due to advancements in tree breeding and silviculture in recent decades. Some recently planted forests including Sitka spruce have been recorded as having an incredible yield class of 44!

It can be seen from the yield classes that conifer species have a significant role in rapidly sequestering carbon and achieving reforestation goals. However, despite their great productivity in collecting carbon, building massive forests of conifers may not be the best solution. It would ignore the potential and benefits that a more varied mix of productive and broadleaf planting can bring, such as enhancing biodiversity and wildlife habitats.

The next steps

If we want to use the forestry sector to fight climate change, then the CCC’s suggestions should be kept in mind. They say woodland cover in the UK should be increased from its current 13% to at least 17% by 2050, with a 60-40 balance between broadleaf and conifers, and ideally to 19%. An increase of this magnitude would amount to nearly 1.5 million hectares of new forest.

Of course, we will need land to plant all these trees on…

According to the CCC’s most recent study on land use, 22% of farmland will need to be dedicated to carbon sequestration if we’re going to hit our net-zero target. Peatland reforestation, energy crop cultivation, and afforestation would all fall under this category. The group predicted that decreasing meat and dairy consumption, boosting farm efficiency, and decreasing food waste would free up lands in this scenario.

It’s possible that a lot of the fruitful planting will occur on pastures that are currently used for sheep. Putting in a productive forest on this site would generate more money for the owner and keep just as many people employed in the area, according to analyses. Furthermore, it is worth noting that despite falling demand, the United Kingdom produces 109% of the lamb it consumes, which has interesting implications for food security.

Farmers, foresters, government officials, and other organisations in Scotland came together to form the Woodland Expansion Advisory Group. The report found that farmers and foresters have a “deep cultural difference.” A shift in mindset and legislation that make fanning and tree planting easier are needed to convince farmers and landowners to take on the dual role of forester and land steward.

The existing grant programme in England needs to be more streamlined, and more detailed instructions and mapping of which areas should be targeted for tree planting are also necessary. Tree planting is highly regulated, and gaining approval to plant can take years. Tenant farmers, who currently manage about a fourth of farmland, may face extra obstacles if they are not allowed to develop their land for other uses.

The need for this huge tree planting initiative is clearly there. The land is also there. But if we are going to make it happen, regulations need to be put in place to incentivise those people who steward this land, and reassure them that it is in their best interests as well as those of the planet.

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