Confor urges Sunak government to ramp up tree planting

“Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed to fulfil his tree planting promises – Confor is calling on his successor to make it right”

Confor (Confederation of Forest Industries), the forestry and wood trade organisation, is encouraging the incoming UK government to accelerate and expand plans to plant more trees to help prevent climate change.

Afforestation and reforestation are critical for the UK to accomplish its climate commitments. Trees utilize carbon dioxide (CO2) in the photosynthesis process to feed their growth, which they then store. Existing trees and forests are among the most important carbon sinks in the world. Forests in the United Kingdom presently retain 3.7 billion tonnes of carbon, which is believed to represent the equivalent of 10 years of the country’s yearly emissions.

However, contemporary UK afforestation is a fraction of what it was a few decades ago. The UK today has only 13% forest cover, compared to nearly 40% in continental Europe.

Following years of decreased tree planting rates and lowering carbon build-up as present UK forests age, the rate of CO2 absorption is expected to diminish in future years. The yearly rate of CO2 build-up was roughly 18 million tonnes in 2020, but this is expected to fall to around 10 million by 2040.

The Conservative administration led by Boris Johnson committed to plant 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of new woods per year by 2024, but official numbers just revealed that less than 14,000 hectares were planted in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2022. Scotland planted 10,480 hectares, accounting for three-quarters of the total, with England planting 2260, Wales 580, and Northern Ireland 540.

“The UK government, devolved administrations and hundreds of local councils have declared an unequivocal climate emergency,” stated Confor Chair Lord Duncan of Sprinkbank. “The UK forestry industry now has an unprecedented opportunity to take a leading role in helping the country reach its Net Zero ambitions. The challenges faced by government are not always straightforward but the informed decisions and urgent actions we take now will have a lasting impact for decades to come.”

Trees do not all grow at the same rate or absorb CO2 in the same way. In the short to medium term, faster-growing coniferous tree species store carbon significantly more quickly. Furthermore, mature conifers (40-50 years old) absorb significantly more carbon than slower-growing broadleaf tree species at the same age. Broadleaf species, on the other hand, can store higher carbon reserves over time – between 50 and 100 years.

To attain Net Zero, the Committee on Climate Change advises increasing forest cover in the UK from 13% to between 17-19% by 2050, with a 60-40 split of broadleaf to conifers. This represents an additional 1.5 million hectares of woods.

However, given the urgency of the situation, Confor has gone a step further, proposing for a 50-50 balance of broadleaf and conifer planting. They predict that if 18,000 hectares of trees were planted per year beginning this year, these trees would sequester 2.04 MtCO2e by 2030, with conifers alone accounting for almost 1.7 MtCO2e. A more equal species split would still provide the benefits of a more diverse mix of productive and broadleaf trees, such as promoting and maintaining biodiversity and animal habitats.

While forests operate as a carbon sink in the landscape, their product, timber, may also act as a long-term carbon sink when utilized in building and industries. Carbon is still stored in wood products, which may frequently be used in place of non-renewable building materials like concrete and steel. According to a recent study, for every tonne of carbon trapped in a new wood product, about one tonne of carbon is “saved” by avoiding the use of alternative materials.

Stuart Goodall, Confor’s CEO, said: “An essential part of limiting climate warming lies in significant carbon dioxide removals (CDR), not only as an adjunct to proactive emissions reduction, but as an essential part of its removal. But with many technology-based CDR solutions in their infancy, tree planting is currently the only scalable “negative emissions” strategy. And it comes with additional benefits for biodiversity, wildlife, flood management, health, not to mention considerable employment, production and trade opportunities.”

Policy Exchange urged for a reform of the UK’s forestry sector in their paper “Bigger, Better Forests” to increase the use of timber in building. It claims that, when compared to brick, concrete, and steel, timber may lower the “embodied carbon” of a structure by 20-60%.

If you’re looking for the best ethically and sustainably sourced timber for your next project, give Quercus a call on 0845 50 50 311.