Speaking recently at the Science Museum in London on climate change projections, Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, was clear that ‘Everything we do at Defra has to be rooted in science.’ He also spoke about woodland as a ‘critical natural asset’ both for helping to mitigate the projected impact on flooding and to sequester carbon.
Days later a BBC News website critique of options for removing carbon from the atmosphere, advised ‘Forests do the job of soaking up carbon dioxide, because the trees need it to grow, but if they're left to rot or are burned, the gas will be released back out again.’ As a scientific statement this is true, but it's not the full story.
Climate change is, at best, hard to communicate to stakeholders and public audiences, even before attempting to explain the finer points of the 2015 Paris Accord to keep global warming below 1.5C. If people are to make informed decisions, at home and in business management, then they need, as Michael Gove implies, a degree of empirical confidence in the projections coming from bodies such as the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in the validity of emerging solutions, of which planting more trees is one.
It is reassuring that the Environment Secretary has confirmed that new woodland is ‘a highly cost-effective method for storing additional carbon from the atmosphere’. Yet converting this into tangible results needs active stakeholders like landowners and corporate sustainability leaders – and indeed consumers, clients, and employees – to be convinced of the validity of new woodland projects. Today, while few would claim that trees offer a complete solution to global warming, there is a growing consensus on the wide-ranging ‘natural capital’ benefits of a substantial increase in good-quality forest cover.
Michael Gove cited the UK government target to increase woodland in England from 10% to 12% by 2060, and to plant 11 million new trees in this parliament. In a fast-moving wide-ranging speech, you could forgive an Environment Secretary for citing blunt numbers and percentages. Yet it is vital in working towards these targets that quality and real additionality aren’t traded for poor quality tree-planting that makes up the numbers with minimised outlay.
The Government established the Woodland Carbon Code in 2011 as a quality standard for UK-based new woodland projects. It provides clarity, consistency and confidence in this emerging market. It demonstrates that without third-party funding the project would otherwise not have gone ahead (‘additionality’) and provides evidence of a long-term plan for responsible management of the new woodland asset – addressing David Shukman’s concerns about unprotected or unsustainably managed woodlands.
The Code also helps to demonstrate other benefits besides carbon capture. Michael Gove spoke about the role of trees in flood mitigation; other potential benefits include enhanced biodiversity, reduced soil erosion, public recreation, landscape aesthetics, and the retention of rural knowledge and skills. These are realised not by simply machine-planting pockets of low-value land with orderly rows of single species. They require the right location, knowledge, consultation and planning. It is hoped that such benefits will be clearly recognised in the long-awaited England Tree Strategy, expected for publication next year.
By June 2018 156 projects had been validated under the Code. These are projected to sequester 2.5m tonnes of CO2 over their lifetime. A further 83 are awaiting validation. The Code should provide any doubters with scientific confidence that trees really can and are helping the UK to deliver on its 1.5C commitment under the Paris Accord.