Policy Exchange - Time to plant – and harvest – more trees

2 Dec 2019 03:36 PM

All political parties agree that the UK needs more trees, but stimulating markets to support forestry and supporting sustainable wood use also needs to be part of land policy after Brexit, argues a new paper from Policy Exchange’s award-winning Energy and Environment unit. 

Bigger Better Forests sets out how, once the UK is free of the Common Agricultural Policy, woodland can be restored to its central role in land use and land management policy.

Policy Exchange proposes a ‘Forest of Britain’, connecting Land’s End to John O’Groats via Wales, as a lasting monument to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee in 2022. This would be a two mile wide corridor connecting conservation sites along the country to raise the profile of woodlands, containing 300 million trees.

In a Foreword, former BBC broadcaster and tree lover John Humphrys writes:

“We all want to see more trees in our not-sufficiently-green and pleasant land. The scientific case is unanswerable.

“The brutal reality is that those who own the most land in this country need incentives to grow trees in the numbers that are needed, which is where this report may prove so valuable. As it makes clear, most land managers think forestry is simply not worth the effort.

“What this report suggests is not rewilding, but the development of farm woodlands and agroforestry as a central plan of our agricultural policy.  Trees can be used to protect soil and grazing livestock from wind and rain. Orchards can be integrated with arable crops so one patch of land produces more food and more profit. And much more public good.

“It is not so very long ago that we regarded our home-grown woodland as a great natural resource. We must do so again. We must reduce our dependence on imported timber and give farmers the incentive they need to see their woodland for what it is: a potentially great natural asset.”

The report proposes:

Establishing a Natural Capital Commission which will set out land, water, ecological and forestry priorities, alongside a new Forestry Act.

Supporting long term investment in forests with Natural Capital Investment Trusts and rewarding landowners for planting trees through, for example, Carbon Increment Payments which would pay owners for sequestering carbon in their trees.

Supporting farmers to pursue more diverse land management methods such as farm woodlands and agroforestry which would, for example, integrate trees within grazing land or orchards with arable crops.

Supporting landowners to manage broadleaf woodlands in the southern UK, which could include harvesting trees.
Realise the potential of the forestry sector to support more skilled jobs in rural areas and cut the costs of decarbonisation.
Encourage the construction sector to use more British timber, setting a target for 40% of new housing starts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland being timber frames by 2025 (in Scotland it is already over 80%)

Rather than set targets for the number of trees to be planted – which can be misleading – ministers should focus on the amount of carbon we need to be sequestered in trees and the environmental outcomes we want to see.

Policy Exchange’s Senior Environment Advisor Benedict McAleenan, who wrote the report, said:

“Once the artificial separation imposed on British agriculture and forestry by CAP is abolished, we must seize the opportunity to manage our land better to tackle climate change and ecological decline.

“Trees play a vital role in carbon sequestration – we need to plant more, but the right trees in the right places. We also need to manage our forests and woodlands better, creating more skilled jobs in rural areas and developing the market for British timber in constructing the low carbon homes we need.

“The whole nation can unite around a Forest of Britain to mark Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. Running the length of Great Britain, it would celebrate our national landscape and restore trees to their rightful place at the heart of the kingdom.”

Notes to editors

For further information contact Amy Gray on 07776124660 – the report is available on Policy Exchange’s website.

This new report follows on from 2017’s Farming Tomorrow, a blueprint for a post-Brexit British Agricultural Policy, in which we suggested that the Government should “Develop an integrated land management policy framework, which facilitates the deeper integration of forestry and agriculture. Explore the potential of re-forestation as a cost-effective approach to mitigating carbon emissions.”

UK tree statistics

The UK’s tree cover is currently 13.1%, fourth from bottom among the EU, whose average is 38% and sixth from bottom among the G20. France has 31% tree cover and Germany has 32%.

By the beginning of the 20th century, British tree cover had fallen to its lowest ever level of around 5%, thanks to decades of industrialisation and centuries of ship building.

Whilst a third of the UK’s forests and woodlands are owned by the Public Forest Estate, 91.7% of new planting occurs in the private sector or via third sector organisation like the Woodland Trust and Trees for Life.

Scotland accounted for almost three quarters of new planting in the last 5 years – adjusted for land mass, Scotland has outperformed the other UK nations by five or six times.

Trees and climate change

The Forestry Commission estimates that UK woodlands currently store 3,781 MtCO2e (million tonnes of carbon dioxide) equivalent.

At current rates of planting, woodlands are providing a carbon sink of roughly 20 MtCO2e per year, meaning that they absorb 20 million tonnes of CO2 more than they emit. This equates to removing 4.6% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, based on 2017 figures (the latest available). In emissions terms, it cancels out the emissions from all Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) in the UK.

Timber markets

The UK imports 80% of the 57 million cubic metres of wood products it consumes.

The Forestry Commission estimates that England has around 60-100m tonnes of ‘overdue’ timber in broadleaved woodlands, demonstrating that there is a lot of slack in the market.

In Scotland, over 80% of new housing starts are built with timber frames – in Wales, it is around 30%, with England and Northern Ireland lagging at 22% and 17% respectively