UK needs 50 million new trees per year to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050
The Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) report published today outlines the stark increase in woodland expansion needed to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The report recognises that neither internally legally binding targets (as enshrined in the Climate Change Act) nor externally binding commitments (the Paris Accord) will be met given the current trajectory in the reduction of carbon emissions.
The CCC analysis outlines that 32,000 hectares annually of net woodland increase is required for the next 30 years, moving the UK from 13% to 17% woodland cover. This equates to a million new hectares of woodland cover, and some 1.5 billion trees.
Beccy Speight, CEO, Woodland Trust said: “There is a potential win-win here. It is essential to address the climate and natural environment crises together - recognising them as being interconnected and not two separate challenges. Climate change is the biggest long-term threat faced by our natural environment and our ecosystem, and thus our own life support system. Woods, trees and their associated wildlife and the landscapes in which they sit are being impacted by climate change in a multitude of ways.
“These impacts are acting on ecosystems that are already under pressure from a history of habitat loss and fragmentation, use of pesticides/ insecticides, simplification of landscapes, lost keystone species, pollution, overgrazing, non-native and/ or invasive species and pests and diseases. This myriad of challenges for the UK’s wildlife and our natural environment is already leading to species extinctions, a loss in the abundance of insects, birds and other species, and a loss in the diversity of species, structures and natural processes making up our ecosystems. Climate change compounds these issues.
“But let’s make no mistake, trees and expanded woodland cover are also a huge part of the solution, as iterated in the CCC report, because of their ability to sequester carbon. To make an impact, new woodland creation and natural regeneration will need to happen on a faster and far greater scale than ever before and be sustained over several decades. If this need is met, at least in part, with native woods and trees they will also provide a plethora of additional benefits for wildlife and people, helping to tackle the damage to our natural environment and offset the other impacts of climate change for us as a species at the same time.”
The question really is what delivery should look like. In 2018, just 9,100ha of new woodland were created in the UK. To go from this to an annual rate of woodland expansion of 32,000ha represents an unprecedented change.
The increase in creation rates would be huge - for the past 25 years no more than 10,000 hectares of new woodland has been planted in any one year across the UK. It is, however, not an insurmountable challenge. Non-woodland trees play a vital role within agriculture, supporting farm productivity through provision of shade and shelter, pollinator and natural predator habitat, and protection of soils from erosion. The recommendation to increase on-farm tree planting and extend hedgerows by 40% (100,000 miles) will also help to deliver the increase and benefit wildlife simultaneously.
Additionally we must build on what we already have - better carbon storage is best achieved by protecting and retaining the substantial carbon store in mature trees and woodland and their soils. There is an urgent need to protect this existing store by addressing threats and providing support for the assessment, protection and maintenance of trees, especially mature trees. This should be wherever they occur - in urban areas, in hedgerows, alongside rivers and transport links and in the farmed countryside generally as well as in existing woodland.
Besides the benefits of carbon sequestration, existing and newly created trees and woodlands can also act as part of the solution to other climate change related challenges. For example, more trees in upland catchments can help reduce downstream flooding and reduce soil erosion and sediment getting into rivers and lakes. Trees on field edges can provide wind breaks for fragile soils, protecting them and minimising loss from wind and water erosion, better supporting crops in the fields as well as those fields which have been taken out of the agricultural system ahead of natural regeneration.
An emphasis on the expansion of UK native woods and trees over several decades and at a far greater scale than we currently see will make a substantial contribution to addressing the climate and natural environment crises together whilst also benefitting society by securing a wide range of other natural capital benefits. We stand ready to play our part - but policy enablement and incentivisation are key and are in the hands of Government.