A game of ‘tree-planting Top Trumps’. This is how Andrew Allen, of the Woodland Trust, described the most recent UK election.
It’s true – from November 2019, politicians attempted to convince the public of their green credentials in what could only be described as a frenzy of afforestation promises.
The Conservative Party pledged to plant 30 million more trees a year, while the Lib Dems and SNP doubled this figure by claiming they would plant 60 million. The Green Party raised the stakes by aiming to plant 700 million trees by 2030, and the Labour Party took the crown by promising two billion new trees by 2040.
Allen went on to point out that, regrettably, some of these targets were not necessarily realistic – not because they are unachievable, but because it would require a drastic change in direction in environmental policy.
If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that tree-planting efforts have been pretty poor in the last few decades.
In 2019, 13,400 hectares (ha) of trees were planted in the UK. This may seem like a lot, but it still missed the previous target set by the government advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), who had recommended that 20,000ha be planted annually by 2020. What’s more, the vast majority of these trees were planted in Scotland, and the overall planting in England fell in comparison to previous years.
Meanwhile, as existing UK woodlands mature and their ability to absorb carbon decreases, we are likely to see an overall halving of the net forestry carbon sink by 2050. This points to an equally important need to re-evaluate the way that we manage and care for our land.
This lacklustre effort on behalf of the government is reflective of a wider trend in our approach to planting trees. Of course, state-funded afforestation needs to be a part of the global solution to climate breakdown, but it’s a particularly important topic in the UK, where we have a history of deforestation. At the beginning of the 20th century, just 5% of the UK was covered by forest, and although that figure now stands at 13%, this is still low compared to the European forest cover average of 38%.
Why is tree planting so important?
Afforestation is a fantastic natural solution to the climate crisis. Although it will only be effective if paired with wide-reaching and dramatic efforts to cut carbon emissions in other sectors, it is still a cheap and relatively easy way of removing carbon from the atmosphere.
And that’s not all: trees are also important for preventing flooding, improving water quality, protecting soil, and reducing urban heat. Increasing forest cover in the UK will also allow us to nurture threatened plant and animal species and restore biodiversity.
Plus, trees are good for us: they reduce air pollution and encourage the development of green spaces, which are great for fostering communities and boosting our mental health.
What are the next steps?
The CCC has recently argued that in order for the UK to meet its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the government will now need to be planting 30,000ha a year by 2030 (the equivalent to 46,000 football pitches). In total, this will amount to 1.5 billion new trees in the UK by 2050.
They also stipulated that this figure may have to rise to 50,000ha if emissions targets in other sectors, including transport and energy, are not met.
For many environmental organisations, including Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Greenpeace, this is still not enough. After all, the net-zero 2050 target itself is relatively unambitious, and while FoE suggest that a doubling of UK tree cover is needed, Greenpeace suggest that 70,000ha a year is more proportionate to the level of crisis we face.
Naturally, all this tree-planting won’t come without problems. There will need to be discussions on whether woodlands will be private or public, and whether they should be managed or wild. Some campaigners argue that woodlands should be left to grow on their own, while others point out that management is key. For example, without wild herbivores to help us out, it’s necessary that foresters remove some trees to let light through the canopy.
In the end, it will likely be a mixture of the two. Similarly, there will also need to be commercial forests as part of a wider attempt to produce more timber domestically, rather than importing large quantities from abroad.
Afforestation is only one of many ways that we need to change our land use in the UK. We need to be reducing our meat and dairy consumption, decreasing agricultural emissions, and re-thinking the amount of rural land which is used to produce food. Additionally, the government needs to ensure they support farmers during this transition and find effective new ways to incentivise agroforestry and rewilding efforts.
So, to answer the question of whether we’re currently doing enough: no, but we definitely could be.