Planting Trees to Combat Climate Change

CONFOR Woodland Show 2019, by Forest Manager Andy Baker

A brilliantly bright and sunny day greeted visitors to the CONFOR Woodland Show 2019 at Longleat Estate, with a touch of chill reminding us all that summer is indeed coming to a close. The theme of this year’s event was “Think Global, Plant Local”, putting the issues of forests, wood and climate change at the heart of the show. The programme itself was packed full of exhibitions, talks and seminars, several of which I was lucky enough to attend. For this blog I wanted to focus on two of these in particular, both closely linked to the show’s theme of climate change mitigation.

The first session of the day, “Woodland expansion, a solution for the climate emergency”, was a panel session introduced by CONFOR’s Chief Executive Stuart Goodall. After touching on recent climate related media events, such as the extinction rebellion’s protests and the efforts of Greta Thunberg sailing across the Atlantic, he proceeded to introduce the session’s panellists. Eleanor Harris from CONFOR provided a summary of the tree planting targets for the UK, with a breakdown of the actual figures for both England and Scotland. She explained how the Government’s commitment to plant 10,000,000 trees annually in England only came to a deceptively low total of around 4,000 hectares, in comparison to the 11,000 hectares planted last year in Scotland alone. Guy Shrubsole from Friends of the Earth then outlined their target of doubling the UK’s tree cover as soon as possible to combat climate change. This could sequester 50 million tonnes of CO2 annually, which is 10% of the UK’s current carbon emissions. Guy called for a reduction in fossil fuel use, a restoration of peat bogs, and a greening of some of our “green-belt deserts”.

Matt Taylor from Country Land and Business Association investigated the main factors preventing afforestation in the UK and considered how they may be overcome. He surmised that unnecessary bureaucracy, high up-front costs, and an unreasonable level of risk are all stifling forest investment. He argued that these could be mitigated if the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) stepped in to reduce this bureaucracy, provided more funding for afforestation and helped to remove the risks to landowners and passed them on to a third party. Paul Nolan of Mersey Forest and the Northern Forest promoted the presumption towards planting trees rather than against it, and looked at how undervalued urban trees in our cities had become. Last but by no means least, Julian Ohlsen of Tilhill Forestry examined how he believes that our true role as forest managers was in fact managers of carbon. Sequestration of carbon through tree planting, according to Mr Ohlsen, should be viewed as the most cost-effective and practical way of mitigating climate change. With a dramatic increase in silvicultural training and with Government support, as an industry we stand to exhibit true change on a National scale.

The first session concluded with a question and answer discussion led by Mr Goodall. This was kicked off by a question relating to an ongoing debate about the sustainability of different ground preparation techniques used in forestry. Some interesting points were raised and discussed by members of the audience and the panellists on this issue, but what could be agreed on by the majority was that the benefit of planting trees outweighed the temporary loss of carbon from the soil from ground preparation. This topic deserves far more than a sentence or two however, and so I will be picking this back up in a later blog for Tilhill Forestry. Another topic of debate was a question of how we can encourage the planting of more trees. Echoing the thoughts of Matt Taylor, it was agreed that a reduction in red tape, a direct line of contact with the Forestry Commission (FC) and a fair level of grant funding that accounts for the myriad environmental benefits trees supplied are needed.

The second session that I attended on day one was led by the Forestry Commission (FC) and was titled “Current and future incentives including the Woodland Carbon Guarantee Fund”. Laura Henderson of the FC kicked off the session with a brief introduction on the UK’s current environmental targets, such as the 25 year environment plan and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Laura then jumped straight into an explanation of what the likely grant structure may look like post-Brexit. This was dominated by the phasing out of the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS) from 2021, and a gradual replacement by the new grant, Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM). This process would likely be completed by 2027, and would see numerous changes in the application of the grant system and of course, the effect on the ground.

To begin with, the goals of ELM are intended to be far wider ranging than the BPS. These include: clean air, clean and plentiful water, thriving plants and wildlife, amongst many others. However, Laura noted that if we remain in the EU, then things are likely to stay largely unchanged. Penny Oliver of the FC then provided the audience with a detailed run-through of all current woodland creation grants in England, with the exception of the Woodland Carbon Guarantee. This was covered by Edward Shepherd of the FC. To summarise, this fund has been designed to incentivise afforestation for the purpose of carbon sequestration. The carbon locked into the timber can be sold as “carbon credits” in a reverse auction process with the FC, or separately through the open market. This fund is open to any applications for afforestation made after 29/10/2018 and for those in progress for Countryside Stewardship, the Woodland Carbon Fund or the HS2 Woodland Fund.

Coming away from events such as these can genuinely leave you feeling inspired. The threat of climate change is, of course, enormous, and can often feel overwhelming. However, when you realise that you have an entire industry that is dedicated to the betterment of the environment, the mitigation of climate change and the enhancement of rural communities standing behind you, the task ahead seems less daunting. We may not always agree on exactly what species to plant, how to prepare the ground for planting, or on the most sustainable method of timber extraction, but we are all on the same team when it comes to the certainty that we need to plant more trees as part of the effort to fight against climate change!

 Andy started working for Tilhill Forestry in 2015 and was initially based in south Wales. Now a member of the South East Team where he became a Forest Manager. He completed his degree in Ecology at the University of Edinburgh in 2013 and can be seen as a speaker representing the fight against climate change.