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Tree Planting Programme Is Vital To Tackling Climate Crisis

Nature based solutions have come to the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change

Baroness Young of Old Scone

Baroness Young of Old Scone

4 min read

Nature based solutions have become a crucial weapon in the fight against the climate crisis in the wake of COP26.

Trees eat CO2 for breakfast. But that’s not all. They can help reduce pollution, stabilise soils and stop erosion, help with natural solutions to flood risk, provide shelter for agricultural animals, and reduce heat in urban areas.

Native trees and woodlands – especially the oldest ones – also provide valuable habitats to help reverse the decline of the UK’s biodiversity. And as well as all this, they make us feel better, mentally and physically. If we didn’t have trees, we would have to invent them.

COP26 demonstrated very clearly that, politically, trees’ time has come, both in the UK and globally. The commitment of young people was there to be seen. More world leaders than ever before signed a landmark declaration to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.

A powerful message from COP26 was that nature-based solutions are central to tackling the climate crisis. The focus on COP26 has given added momentum here in the UK to the commitment to plant more trees, as espoused by all the main parties in their manifestos at the last election.
Nature for Climate funding in England has enabled important initiatives like the Northern Forest to expand. But we are still a way off meeting the government’s 30,000-hectare annual woodland creation target, with only just over 13,000 hectares planted in 2019/20. There is a big risk that the dash for trees will end up in over-reliance on poorly designed non-native plantations, rather than connected, native woodlands and trees outside woods, with the distinctive biodiversity benefits they bring.

Any woodland creation takes a little time while trees mature, so we need to ensure our ancient woodlands are better protected as they not only safeguard already-stored carbon but are estimated to double that amount over the next 100 years.

Ancient woodland is at least 400 years old and is the UK’s equivalent of rainforest. During the passage of the Environment Act, government gave important and welcome concessions on reviewing ancient woodland protection and introducing a secretary of state call-in requirement for any development impacting adversely on ancient woodland. These promises must be delivered swiftly. The risk is they suffer from being linked with forthcoming planning (now “levelling up”) legislation which so far has not been forthcoming.

The Nature Recovery green paper is due soon. I hope the government will take the opportunity to modernise the remit of the Forestry Commission. Its legal duties should be expanded to reflect the nature and climate emergencies, with promoting sustainable woodland management, protection and restoration of nature, and action for climate change at the heart of its remit.

If more of the land surface is going to be given over to trees, farmers will need to play a key role in the choices they make for that 75 per cent of our land which is under agriculture. New subsidy systems are slow in emerging, and the delay of introduction of an agroforestry standard to 2024 and the farm woodland standard to 2025 means the government’s voiced ambition for trees doesn’t seem to be matched with effective delivery mechanisms.

The risk is that, in a post-COP world, where many farmers are increasingly interested in how trees can be incorporated into their business model, there is little information on schemes to help them make longer-lasting decisions like planting trees with any confidence.

All of this needs land, and we aren’t making any more. Our finite land resources are under increasing pressure for climate change and biodiversity recovery actions, for built development, infrastructure and housing, for food production and reduction in our massive reliance on imported timber, for open space for the nation’s sense of wellbeing, and for a list of other public benefits.
With no cross-government framework to optimise land use for the multiple benefits we need, the recent creation of a House of Lords special inquiry committee on Land Use in England is welcome.

Baroness Young of Old Scone is a Labour peer and chair of the Woodland Trust

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