Climate panic – plant trees! Behind the headlines

Posted on February 5, 2020 by

The Llais y Goedwig response to climate change goes back to our very beginnings with Advisory note 5: An introduction to climate change [1] followed by various blogs[2] over the years and continues in the form of current proposals for community tree nurseries. However, climate change has jumped up the agenda and in response this blog has been prepared to brief LlyG members on the latest developments. With special reference to the declaration by Welsh Government of a climate emergency[3], the setting of a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050[4] and how this relates to tree planting initiatives.  It forms the start of what we hope will be an information exchange with members that will lead to a Llais y Goedwig position statement and strategy for engagement with climate change action.

LlyG members have valuable knowledge of woodlands and the benefits they bring to local communities and should seek to engage with policy relevant to tree planting as far as they are able. Should we follow the lead of the Woodland Trust, with their Emergency Tree Plan for the UK, and the National Trust and set out a collective agenda for tree planting? What could we offer? Many of us don’t have land to plant but are custodians of existing woodland – should we say something about restoring them to enhance their role as carbon stores? Could we serve as advocates for woodland creation to our neighbours?

Please read the information below and let us know your ideas on how Llais y Goedwig members can best contribute to action on climate change – contact policy@llaisygoedwig.org.uk with your thoughts and respond to upcoming posts and threads on the Llais y Goedwig facebook page

 

Climate panic – plant trees! Behind the headlines – A blog by Dr Jenny Wong

Action on climate change has recently been boosted into a much more prominent place in the public arena by the mobilisation of mass action such as the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion. As Greta Thunberg[5] says – the normal response to a ‘crisis’ is to ‘panic’ and do something! But what can we practically do? Beyond protesting for political and economic changes to divest from fossil fuels there are various ‘top ten’ lists[6] of personal actions that can be taken to help reduce your carbon footprint. None of these mention forestry. So how is it that tree planting has become so prominent as a climate action? In part, perhaps, as a reaction to the report published in July 2019 in the journal Science[7] and widely picked up by the media[8]. The paper presents figures indicating that if all 1.7 bn ha of treeless land were planted with 1.2 trillion native trees that over 50-100 years this would remove 200 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere amounting to 2/3rds of all the carbon emissions from human activities. This has been picked up as suggesting that “Planting billions of trees across the world is one of the biggest and cheapest ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere to tackle the climate crisis”[9]. This has spawned many initiatives – globally in the form of the Trillion trees initiative[10] as well as more local ones offering carbon offsetting (e.g. Carbon Footprint[11]).

Another urgent call to action is the biodiversity crisis[12] which also demands urgent action and transformative change[13]. With David Attenborough[14] arguing that we can no longer prevaricate, that we know what to do and the time for action is now. The role of trees in this context is less clear-cut – for biodiversity it’s not planting fast-growing trees which is needed but protection and restoration of forest and mangroves alongside salt-marches, wetlands, bogs and coastal seas[15] all of which capture and store carbon. The 1.7 bn ha to be planted for carbon capture in the trillion trees scenario includes all open land in the UK capable of growing native trees which is not cropland. This would mean planting all land used for grazing which would include all pasture, ffridd and moorland – much of which constitutes important habitats and are themselves important stores of soil carbon. Although planting trees is a good idea there is a note of caution that this is just a contribution not a solution to carbon reduction and this does not mean trees everywhere are equally good[16]. In Wales there is much made of putting the “right tree in the right place”[17] but what this might mean at site level depends on your point of view – either more or less pro-carbon or pro-biodiversity or indeed your stance on the production and consumption of meat and wool. We therefore find ourselves caught between two existential crises seeking actions which can usefully contribute to both.

How many trees should we plant in the UK?

First, let’s look at some numbers to put the contribution that tree planting can make to carbon budgets into perspective. The Woodland Carbon Code[18] is a voluntary standard for new UK woodlands to permit verifiable and accredited claims to be made about the amount of carbon they sequester to facilitate carbon-offset trading. So, this is perhaps a good place to look for information on the carbon contribution of trees grown in the UK. The Carbon Code currently has 8,261 ha of land validated for the scheme. Once verified this will provide net capture of 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 over 100 years. This amounts to 411 tonnes per ha over 100 hundred years. The average person in the UK had a carbon footprint of 7.96 tonnes per year (in 2015[19]). So, if you wanted to plant enough trees to cancel a lifetimes’ carbon emissions you’d need to plant just under 1.5 ha of trees at birth and 30 years after dying at 70 your life-time carbon debt would be cancelled. There are 68 million people in the UK so we’d need roughly 1 million sq km of trees but we only have 242,000 sq km of land…. The message is not to give up – but to plant as many trees as feasible AND switch to renewables, save the peat bogs, look after the oceans and everything else we are being exhorted to do.

The UK Committee on Climate Change’s recent (CCC, 23rd January 2020) report “Land Use Policies for a Net Zero UK”[20] looks at a wide range of issues related to how landscapes need to change and is well worth a read. The CCC recommend a target of 1.5 billion trees to be planted across the UK by 2050 alongside a wide raft of other measures to reduce emissions and sequester (capture and store) carbon such as restoration of peat bogs. Achieving this level of afforestation would require planting of 30,000 ha per year until 2050 to raise forest cover from 13% to 17% of UK land area. It is inevitable that for this to happen we would need to accept large scale changes to land use and landscape character. CCC also point out that in the uplands we sit on a seesaw between peat restoration and tree planting being the best way to contribute to reduction of net carbon emissions. This consideration is particularly relevant to much of Wales.

But in the UK where landscape is often highly contested – how can we reach a consensus on the types and locations of changes? Is this something LlyG can contribute to here in Wales?

Tree planting in the UK

Strong government policy to drive large scale afforestation isn’t something new to the UK. Indeed, afforestation is what the UK is famous for. In 1919 the UK was just 5% forest and as a consequence of government policy backed with funding by 2019 it was 13% (3.19 million ha) – matching levels last seen in the 13th century. Afforestation rates up to the 1990’s was high – reaching > 30,000 ha per year in 1988 and 1989. However, since then the rate of new planting slowed as attention shifted away from afforestation. However, since 2010 higher planting targets were introduced related to balancing carbon budgets and has become highly politicised with bizarre tree planting pledge bidding wars in the campaigning prior to the December 2019 general election[21]. The Conservatives promised 15,000 ha of new trees …. we’ll have to wait and see what actually gets planted. In Wales the Plaid Cymru target appeared modest at 2,000 ha per year but it is in fact the tree planting target in the current Woodlands for Wales Strategy[22] which is deemed “essential to delivery of the climate change and decarbonisation obligations” as well as many other benefits.

Planting targets and achievements across the UK for 2019 are:

Unsurprisingly, the CCC finds that “the existing policy framework has been insufficient to meet the emissions reduction set out in our first five legislated carbon budgets”. Basically, Wales is doing pretty badly and falling a long way short of the target – though Scotland is doing well – so large-scale new plantings can still be done in the UK.

In the presence of what appears to be a failure of government policy-led initiatives in England and Wales to deliver on tree planting, people and civil society organisations are looking to plant what they can[23] – with some notable successes but also not without problems.

The Woodland Trust has its Big climate fightback with provision of 700,000 free trees for planting – of which 44,145 made it to Wales[24] supported by the Guardian’s 2019 a “A tree is for life” campaign in support of four tree planting charities[25].

The National Trust does have land to plant and has recently[26] unveiled plans to reach net zero carbon by 2030 which includes planting of 20 million trees on 18,000 ha over the next ten years. This has caused some consternation among tenant farmers especially here in Wales[27] as previous large-scale afforestation led o depopulation and negative impacts on Welsh language, food production and communities.

Why are we failing to meet planting targets in Wales?

A second blog will pick up the story from here and outline some of the barriers to planting trees in Wales.

Policy paper for further reading:

Committee on Climate Change (2020) Land Use Policies for a Net Zero UK.

https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/land-use-policies-for-a-net-zero-uk/

 

References

[1] http://llaisygoedwig.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/AN5-An-introduction-to-Climate-Change.pdf (

[2] http://llaisygoedwig.org.uk/?x=0&y=0&s=climate+change&lang=en (blog)

[3] https://gov.wales/welsh-government-makes-climate-emergency-declaration (press release)

[4] https://gov.wales/written-statement-response-committee-climate-changes-net-zero-report (press release)

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14w8WC1I3S4 (13 min speech)

[6] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20181102-what-can-i-do-about-climate-change

[7] Bastin et al (2019) The global tree restoration potential. Science 365(6448): 76-79. DOI: 10.1126/science.aax0848 (academic paper)

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/04/planting-billions-trees-best-tackle-climate-crisis-scientists-canopy-emissions (newspaper article)

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/04/planting-billions-trees-best-tackle-climate-crisis-scientists-canopy-emissions

[10] https://www.trilliontrees.org/

[11] https://www.carbonfootprint.com/plantingtrees.html

[12] https://news.ku.dk/all_news/2012/2012.1/biodiversity/ (press release)

[13] Diaz et al (2019) Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science 366(6471): DOI: 10.1126/science.aax3100 (academic paper)

[14] https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p080jx29/the-big-interviews-sir-david-attenborough-blasts-inaction-on-climate-change (2 min video)

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/03/let-nature-heal-climate-and-biodiversity-crises-say-campaigners (article + video)

[16] https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/tree-planting-climate-change-trump-greta-thunberg-philippines-a9299256.html

[17] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/dec/28/replanting-britain-its-about-the-right-tree-in-the-right-place (newspaper article)

[18] https://woodlandcarboncode.org.uk/

[19] http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/SeriesDetail.aspx?srid=751

[20] https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/land-use-policies-for-a-net-zero-uk/ (download page with summary – full report is 123 pages)

[21] BBC More or less: Behind the scenes https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07x4q52 (9 min audio)

[22] https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2018-06/woodlands-for-wales-strategy_0.pdf

[23] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2019/09/22/woodland-trust-asks-one-million-britons-plant-tree-government/ (newspaper article)

[24] https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/press-centre/2019/11/free-trees-for-communities/ (Press release)

[25] https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2019/dec/19/play-your-part-in-the-guardians-charity-appeal-a-tree-is-for-life-video

[26] https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/press-release/national-trust-outlines-fresh-ambition-in-landmark-speech-by-director-general

[27] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-51182034

 

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