UK Forests and Climate Change

The BES Policy Team yesterday attended the launch of the National Assessment of UK Forestry and Climate Change report, an exercise established by the Forestry Commission and conducted by a team of experts, led by Professor Sir David Read, Biological Secretary of the Royal Society and Professor of Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield.

Professor Sir Read began the afternoon with a presentation outlining the main results of the report, which examines the potential of UK forests to assist society in mitigating and adapting to, climate change. The Assessment set out to review and synthesise existing knowledge, to provide baseline information on forests in the UK and to identify gaps and weaknesses to determine research priorities for the next few years.

From the 1950’s – 70’s around 25,000 hectares of woodland was planted each year, but this has declined massively in recent years: we are now harvesting the trees planted during these decades and, as this occurs and forests aren’t replaced, the sequestration of carbon by trees in the UK will fall. UK forests store 790 megatonnes of carbon and remove 15 megatonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. The headline conclusion of the Assessment is that traditional management of the tree stock we already have is not sufficient. In order to enhance sequestration we have to plant new woodland, approximately 23,000 hectares per year on an annual basis from now to 2050.

Professor Read also highlighted ‘substitution’, carbon lock-up after felling, as a key way in which the forestry sector could contribute to tackling climate change in the UK. Wood should be used as biomass, as a substitute for fossil fuels, and wood should be greater used by the construction sector.

Professor Read highlighted, albeit briefly, that the Assessment’s proposals would pose difficult questions for the conservation of biodiversity in woodland communities in the UK, particularly given recommendations that non-native tree species (e.g. from the Mediterranean) make up the new forests – as these species may be more likely to thrive as the climate warms. Professor Read called for immediate field-trials to identify those species which it would be most appropriate to grow in the UK, and which would be least likely to beome invasively.

Professor Read’s presentation was followed by an address from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn, who remained afterwards to take questions as part of the panel discussion. Mr Benn welcomed the report on behalf of the Government, stating that as a nation the UK will have to plant more trees and that the Government will have to ensure that this happens. Alluding to the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) study, the Minister stressed that trees must be assigned a value standing, as they are felled, and that the UK Government is wiling to pledge its share at the forthcoming Copenhagen climate negotiations to support a REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) mechanism in developing countries. Mr Benn is due to host a round-table of environment Ministers today, with the Director of the IUCN, examining the sustainable use of the world’s forests.

One major point to emerge from the discussion session following the presentations was the need to recognise the increasing threat posed to trees by pests and disease, with losses eroding any gains in coverage through planting more trees. Increasingly mild and wet winters are likely to favour the development and survival of pathogen populations. Panellists stressed the need to apply science to find a solution, with the Minister drawing attention to a £25 million Defra-funded research project into two major tree diseases. Nevertheless, there was acknowledgment that it will be necessary to live with some future tree diseases, and their consequences.

The Forestry Commission and UK Government will now consider the contents of the report before making a decision on how to implement its recommendations.