Forestry and other land management activities have a key role to play in combating climate change by providing alternative energy sources to fossil fuels and low energy, renewable materials. The sequestration and storage of carbon in vegetation and soils also makes a significant contribution to stabilising the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is a particular preserve of forestry where the longevity of trees and the relative lack of disturbance in the habitat means that carbon is locked up and stored on long-term cycles. Sensitive management and planning in farming and forestry are crucial in adapting to climate change so as to protect the social, economic and environmental values of our countryside.
However, farming and forestry activities also emit greenhouse gases. The most significant are nitrous oxide and methane, which although at much lower concentrations in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, are more powerful agents of change. In 2004, farming and forestry accounted for 46% of methane and 66% of nitrous oxide emissions in the UK, chiefly from livestock farming and use of nitrogenous fertilisers. The major issue for this sector is in tackling direct emissions of nitrous oxide and methane, rather than carbon dioxide (only 1% of UK’s carbon dioxide emissions).
The disturbance of soil in farming and forestry leads to processes that break down some of the organic components and generate carbon dioxide. This is a particular concern in parts of the UK, such as Scotland and Wales, where soils tend to have higher amounts of organic matter. In forestry emissions from soil can be associated with site preparation for new planting and harvesting and replanting in established forests where organic matter builds up in soils that remain undisturbed for long periods.
Soil conservation is an area of intense policy activity across the UK. The Forestry Commission is working with other departments in the UK government and devolved administrations to develop and implement measures to minimise damage to soils in forestry operations.
The impacts of land management on water resources and flood protection are also major preoccupations of government across the UK. Increased risk of flooding is one of the firmest predictions of climate scientists. Across the UK there is growing realisation that more sustainable flood management measures can be developed through changes in land management. The other side of the coin, water shortage, will impose changes on land-use such as greater care in siting new woodland that may have a higher water demand than other vegetation.
Farming and forestry will be among the first sectors to feel the direct effects of a changing climate. Climate change strategies across the UK recognise the need for us to adapt to new threats and opportunities, while still maintaining a sustainable rural economy. Meeting the challenge means working together – at policy level no less than on the land itself.