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Woodland Trust: We must urgently increase tree cover in the face of the climate and nature crisis

Woodland Trust: We must urgently increase tree cover in the face of the climate and nature crisis

Jeremy Hughes | Woodland Trust

8 min read Member content

Today, the Woodland Trust launches its ‘Emergency Tree Plan’, setting out its vision for a major increase in tree cover to the 19% recommended by the Climate Change Committee. PoliticsHome recently spoke with Dr James Cooper, Head of External Affairs, to learn more about the proposals for helping tackle the climate and nature crises whilst delivering a range of benefits for people, along with the Trust’s priorities for the year ahead.

Evidence grows ever more compelling of the impact the climate crisis is having globally and warnings of the need to act swiftly are growing starker. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that we only have until 2030 to design and implement policies that can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

We have also just seen an election campaign where the environment featured far more strongly than ever before – including every party backing the need for a major increase in trees and woods. 

Here in the UK, according to James Cooper, Head of External Affairs at the Woodland Trust, “we are staring down the barrel of twin existential crises: climate change and biodiversity collapse -half of all UK woodland wildlife is in decline.”

“We need to act, and we need to give people the tools to act,” warned Dr Cooper, speaking to PoliticsHome recently. “A major increase in tree cover is one of the key actions the UK can take and also gives the opportunity to transform the country into a better place for people and wildlife.”

Today the Woodland Trust launch their ‘Emergency Tree Plan’, a strategy setting out how to translate political ambitions for trees into action that delivers for wildlife, climate and people. The report warns ministers that the UK’s speed of response needs to accelerate fast. Its key messages are that we must act like its an emergency and work at an unprecedented scale and pace to increase tree cover, we must measure tree cover by quality not just quantity, and we must look after the trees and woods that we already have.

Some 53% of woodland wildlife species are in decline in the UK and the UK has only 13% woodland cover of all types. Recent reports that we have woodland cover similar that in the Middle Ages cannot disguise the fact that we have amongst the lowest cover in Europe (the average is 37%) and only 7% of that is native woodland. We have much to do to get to where we actually need to be. The Climate Change Committee have recommended an increase to 19% tree coverage by 2050, if the UK is to meet the net zero carbon emissions target.

“It feels that we are on the threshold of a very big moment, which is why the Woodland Trust is launching its Emergency Tree Plan today,” said Dr Cooper.

“I have working here for quite a number of years and it really feels in terms of awareness of the importance of woods and trees, we have arrived,” he continued, ‘but we now need to move urgently into action as the stakes are so high. We also need to make sure we are learning from the mistakes of the past when it comes to how we set about delivering that major increase.”

The Woodland Trust itself is fully committed to getting 40 million trees in the ground over the next ten years along with its ongoing work championing protection and restoration of native woodland.

The report has a number of key recommendations in relation to both protection and expansion.

Protecting existing trees and native woodland

Underpinning the Emergency Tree Plan is ensuring that existing trees and native woodlands are protected and restored.  

“We are still seeing far too many woods and trees threatened by development, particularly from poorly designed public infrastructure projects,” said Dr Cooper. “At present 108 ancient woods are threatened with loss or damage by HS2. That is completely unacceptable and whatever the ultimate decision we must bear down on the environmental cost as well as the financial cost.”

Alongside developments, pests and diseases also present a key risk to existing woodland.

“We need strong biosecurity  checks at the border, and we must invest in a rapid expansion of tree nurseries to reuce the disease risk of importing trees”.

Increasing tree coverage

While protecting existing woodland is foundational to the Emergency Tree Plan, according to Dr Cooper we must dramatically accelerate rates of woodland expansion Is the Climate Change Committee’s target achievable?“Its very achievable and it can also help shape better places to live work and spend leisure time but we mustn’t be afraid to think big and do things differently”  replied Dr Cooper.

“We have had quite high planting rates in the past in the 1980s, but we weren’t always planting the right tree in the right place.”

He adds: “At the moment, Scotland is disproportionately bearing the burden, and we need to have strong increases across all four countries.

 “We need annual enforceable country targets for woodland creation , an emergency increase in capacity in tree and woodland team sat all levels of national and local government that befits the situation that is upon us,” emphasised Dr Cooper.

“We need to invest money for public good, policies such as thriving wildlife, clean rivers, carbon storage, clean air. We must also provide landowners with financial support for the natural regeneration of woodland and work with them to ensure it is easier for them to plant the right trees in the right places. We need to make sure that as we leave the Common Agricultural Policy that we invest in these areas,” he continued.

Brexit and beyond

Leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and  issues around biosecurity highlighted a major change in the backdrop to the protection and growth of woodland after Brexit. What risks might the UK’s departure from the EU present to the Plan’s implementation?

“I think what we need to do is go on the front-foot very quickly,” replied Dr Cooper.

He called for a “swift return” of the Environment Bill including enshrining in law a commitment to national and local tree strategies in England as is the case in Scotland and called for strong commitments and a non-regression clause in terms of the existing EU environmental standards.

The England Tree Strategy, currently in development, has also become  “an even more  important document,” he said.

 “There was, as people have described it an “arms-race” between the parties during the election campaign,  and this is a document that will sets the direction of travel in increasing cover and protecting what we have got”, he added.

The publication of Agriculture Bill last week was “good news” according to Dr Cooper, as it legislates towards a “public money for public goods” approach, something the Woodland Trust are keen to promote. “It is critical that the England Tree Strategy and the Agriculture Bill are seen as inter-connected if we are to move towards the kind of integrated land management system that it needed to deliver a major uplift in tree cover” he added.

Setting an example

Dr Cooper described how the public forest estate, managed by Government, needs to set the standard with high quality access, wildlife recovery and fundamentally, to demonstrate “the art of the possible.”

He added: “Projects like the Northern Forest, led by the Woodland Trust and Community Forests, is a great example of how woods and trees can provide a wide range of benefits  - social, environmental and economic.”

Dr Cooper also underscored how COP26, the global climate conference that will take place in Glasgow later this year, will play a key role in showing that the UK is “setting the example through world class environmental activity at home”.

“There is a big win-win here. You can tackle the biodiversity and climate crisis, but also, well-located tree cover can reduce the risk of flooding, create thousands of new jobs, make people happier and healthierandprovide sustainable timber.

“There is a big opportunity here to deliver on a lot of the Government’s broader agenda at the same time.”

Local authority action

The Trust’s Emergency Tree Plan also identifies Local authorities as having an important role to play and this will need to be resourced accordingly.

Dr Cooper described how currently only 11% of urban areas are currently covered by so-called “trees-outside-woods”.

“We think in many urban areas there is the potential to expand tree canopy cover,” he continued. “we also want to see a commitment to a 30% tree canopy cover for new development land and for each local authority to commission and delver their own emergency tree plan to identify land for trees whilst properly protecting what they akrwady have.”

Alongside the role of central government, parliamentarians and local authorities, Dr Cooper emphasised that all parts of society can play an important part in delivering the recommendations, including the private sector and private individuals and urged them to visit the Woodland Trust website to read the report.

Next steps

In conjunction with the launch of the Emergency Tree Plan, today, 21st January, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ancient Woodland and Trees will be having its annual general meeting. The intention is that the APPG (chaired by Alex Chalk MP) will be formally extending its reach beyond ancient woodland, with the Group’s name changing to the ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group for Woods and Trees’.

James Cooper called on Parliamentarians to attend this important forum - both today and its future meetings.

 “We will be looking in the future at how to expand tree cover in the right way, how we protect against pests and diseases, how we build understanding of the range of benefits woods and trees deliver to society,” he said.

Alongside the APPG, on February 24th, the Woodland Trust will be hosting a reception in Parliament to further discuss the role of trees in helping to tackle the climate and nature crisis.

This will present Parliamentarians with the opportunity to hear more about the Emergency Tree Plan, as well as hear about the Trust’s plans to work with local authorities and private sector partners to galvanise action.

For more information please contact

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