Why forestry should be at the top of the next Prime Minister's agenda
With the sector contributing more than £2 billion to the UK economy, forestry ticks all of the right boxes on the road to Net Zero.
It’s not easy being green - and that’s not just the opinion of Kermit the Frog. In recent polling for The Times, only 4% of Conservative Party members believed hitting Net Zero should be a priority for the next Tory Leader.
Hardly surprising then that in the Conservative Leadership contest, green issues have received the least air time of all the major issues facing the country. Such is the ‘lukewarm’ commitment by the leadership contenders that Alok Sharma, the cabinet minister who led the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, has threatened to resign in protest.
According to the same polling, shoring up the economy, addressing the cost of living crisis and strengthening the UK’s international standing all outpolled the environment. Press reports of the polling seemed to suggest that in the Tory mind, economic well-being and environmental action were mutually incompatible - and that Conservatives couldn’t have their cake and eat it. Cake-ism has come in for much criticism of late, but it is worth looking at the facts.
When I’m not sitting on the Woolsack in the Lords, I spend much of my time working in forestry, a sector which supports well over 50,000 UK jobs, often in remote, rural areas – did someone say levelling up - and contributes more than £2 billion to the economy. With trees one of the most important carbon sinks, and timber well-placed to replace carbon intensive steel and concrete in the built environment, forestry will be at the heart of achieving Net Zero.
Yet despite stellar growth in the demand for wood over the last three decades, the UK still imports 80% of its timber and wood products, mostly from the EU but from as far afield as China, the United States and Russia. The carbon footprint of such imports is not insignificant.
The solution is obvious – plant more trees, harvest more timber, build back greener. Everyone is a winner – more carbon is sequestered, buildings have a smaller carbon footprint, biodiversity is enhanced, jobs are created in rural areas and the balance of trade tilts in the right direction. So why isn’t it happening right now?
Boris Johnson pledged to plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland in the UK every year by 2024. So far we are creeping towards 14,000 hectares a year.
In England, the focus has been on hardwood planting. In Scotland, which has planted more than 10,000 hectares (for each of the last four years), some two-thirds of the trees planted were softwood, ultimately destined to be harvested and made into low-carbon products.
In England, with land values skyrocketing and landowners unwilling to wait a century to see a return on their investment when planting hardwoods, the 40-year cycle of conifer harvesting has obvious attractions - not least in fending off the gnashers of the grey squirrel which can decimate hardwood plantings.
There needs to be a rural revolution when it comes to forestry. Whoever becomes the next PM has the opportunity to level up, improve the balance of trade, create jobs, sequester carbon and improve the green environment. Sometimes it’s easier being green than you might think.
Lord Duncan of Springbank is deputy speaker in the House of Lords and formerly Minister for Climate Change in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He is Chair of Confor: promoting forestry and wood, which represents 1500 sustainable UK forestry and wood-using businesses.
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