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If an extra four per cent of the United Kingdom’s land were planted with new woodland over the next 40 years, it could be locking up ten per cent of the nation’s predicted greenhouse gas emissions by the 2050s.
That’s the view of an expert, independent panel of scientists who today published the first national assessment of the potential of the UK’s forests to mitigate climate change, and of requirements to ensure they can successfully adapt to our new conditions.
The panel, chaired by Professor Sir David Read, recently Vice-President of the Royal Society and currently Emeritus Professor of Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, was tasked by the Forestry Commission to make the assessment – believed to be the first national study of its type in the world.
Speaking at an event in London today to publish the report, Professor Read said:
“All our research points to the fact that forestry can make a significant and cost-effective contribution to meeting the UK’s challenging emissions reduction targets.
“By increasing our tree cover we can lock up carbon directly. By using more wood for fuel and construction materials we can make savings by using less gas, oil and coal, and by substituting sustainably produced timber for less climate-friendly materials.
“While so many emissions reduction measures have negative connotations, tree planting can be a win, win, win solution: people love trees, we benefit from them in so many different ways, and now we know they could play a significant part in reducing the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions.”
The report suggests that appropriate planting of 23,000 hectares a year – equivalent to about 30,000 football pitches – over 40 years would involve changing the use of only four per cent of the UK’s land. This would mean increasing tree planting by 200 per cent on current levels. It would bring woodland cover in the UK from its current 12 per cent of the land area to 16 per cent, still well below the European average of 37 per cent.
On mitigating climate change, the report says:
- woodland creation has the potential to provide highly cost-effective and achievable abatement of greenhouse gas emissions compared with potential options in other sectors;
- carbon storage in UK forests has been declining as a result of new-planting rates falling and younger forests, which sequester more carbon than older forests, maturing. Stepping up the new woodland planting rate would help to reverse this decline;
- creating new forests would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other ways, for example, by reducing the use of nitrogen fertilisers, which require a high fossil fuel input in their manufacture, and by reducing the emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from the land;
- if the market for wood construction products continues to grow at its current rate over the next 10 years, there is the potential to store an estimated additional 10 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon (equivalent to 36.7 Mt CO2) in new and refurbished homes by 2019; and
- within the next five years, sustainably produced woodfuel has the potential to save the equivalent of approximately seven million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year by replacing fossil fuels. The report says the use of biomass for heating provides one of the most cost-effective and environmentally acceptable ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
On ensuring that forests are adapted to and can withstand the effects of climate change, the report says that forest planners will need to reconsider the current preference for using native tree species and local provenances under all circumstances. The panel said that if greenhouse gas emissions do not decline, foresters will need to consider introducing new species, including those from continental Europe, to ensure that forests are resilient to changes in the climate. It added that “further research is urgently needed to establish which species will be best suited to the changed environmental conditions”.
The report also states that trees, particularly in towns and cities, have an important role in helping society to adapt to climate change by providing shelter, cooling, shade and controlling rainwater runoff. It says tree and woodland planting should be targeted to places where people live, especially the most vulnerable people, and places where people gather, such as town and local centres which currently have low tree cover.
Further information on the Read report is available at http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/infd-7y4gn9.
Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rt Hon Hillary Benn's response.
NOTES TO EDITOR:
- Today’s event was held at the Zoological Society of London. Another meeting at the same venue tomorrow (26 November) will bring together forestry leaders from around the world to look at how more of the world’s forests could be restored. One billion hectares of lost or degraded forest is thought to be capable of restoration, with a potential impact on reducing carbon dioxide emissions equal to that of halting deforestation.
- The UK has about three million hectares of forest and woodland, or 12 per cent of the land area. International comparisons include Europe (excluding Russia) 37 per cent; North and Central America 33 per cent; and Finland 74 per cent.
- The UK has already achieved considerable success in restoring forest cover over the past century. A century ago the woodland cover was estimated to be little more than five per cent of the land area, compared with estimates for the maximum forest cover since the last Ice Age, which go as high as 80 per cent.
- New woodland establishment in the UK has averaged about 9000 hectares a year over the past five years. The highest recorded annual new planting area in recent times was about 30,000 hectares in 1988. Similar levels were recorded in the mid-1970s.
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