SNP dumps £200m new forest scheme

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THE SNP government's ability to meet its ambitious climate change targets has been thrown into doubt after it shelved a controversial leasing scheme to raise £200 million for planting new forests.

Ministers want to create 10,000 hectares of woodland each year to absorb carbon dioxide and help meet their goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

However, proposals to lease off 25 per cent of the existing forest estate in Scotland for 75 years, to raise cash for the vast new areas of woodland, were shelved yesterday in an embarrassing U-turn by the new environment minister, Roseanna Cunningham.

The Scottish Government admitted the move left a "hole" in the funding for the new forests, which are needed to meet its climate change targets.

The plans had sparked mass opposition and accusations the SNP government was trying to privatise the forests and "sell off the family silver". More than 12,000 people signed a petition against the idea, which also encountered cross-party opposition among MSPs.

However, Ms Cunningham's announcement yesterday – just 130 days after the idea was proposed by the former environment minister, Michael Russell – leaves the SNP government with a political headache amid accusations of a humiliating climbdown.

And fears were voiced yesterday that without the funds to plant 10,000 hectares of forest each year, Scotland's ability to meet its 2050 climate targets could be at risk.

There were also warnings that communities would suffer if the new woodlands were not created, as well as tourism, biodiversity and those involved in the growing number of businesses that depend on forests.

Currently, just 4,000 hectares of forest are being created each year. If that rate continues, there will be a planting shortfall of 12 million trees a year, adding up to 480 million "missing" trees by 2050.

And without those forests, there will not be the "carbon sinks" needed to soak up 4.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050 and help meet emissions reduction targets. Dr Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland, said: "We are so desperate to get emissions down that we should be doing almost everything we can think of to reduce emissions or absorb extra carbon."

He added: "The government, in its calculations, is certainly relying on a large fraction of these hectares being planted up, so that certainly threatens the targets they are aiming for."

And a spokesman for the Scottish Government added that the decision to scrap the plans "leaves a hole in terms of the money required".

A spokesman for Forestry Commission Scotland acknowledged that woodlands were an important "tool" in Scotland's efforts to tackle climate change, but added that he was "confident" the target of planting 10,000 hectares a year could still be met.

"Woodlands are carbon sinks," he said. "They are locking up carbon. We would see them as a significant contributor to the fight against climate change.

"There is an overwhelming need to get planting trees for climate change purposes. That's why the whole consultation really kicked in. It was all for the benefit of climate change."

Ms Cunningham, who took office last month, when Mr Russell became culture minister, said that she had taken a good look at the responses to the consultation.

"After giving this serious consideration and in view of the comments we received, I have decided not to take leasing any further," she said.

However, she warned that alternative measures were now needed and added: "We should be under no illusion that without the leasing option, we now need to consider ways of raising funds in order to plant more trees".

In a statement yesterday, she added: "Forests and woodlands play an important role in the fight against climate change. By planting more trees, we can lock up more carbon and reduce the harmful impact our emissions have on the planet.

"Current planting rates are too low and we must dramatically increase them if we are to make a significant contribution towards the Scottish Government's ambitious climate change target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, and increase woodland cover in Scotland."

The Scottish Lib Dems described the move as an "embarrassing U-turn" for the SNP government and Scottish Labour said it was a "humiliating climbdown".

However, Ms Cunningham defended her decision. She insisted: "A consultation is exactly that – an opportunity to explore ideas and gather in views and opinions."

One idea to be taken forward in order to bring in cash for new wind farms is that the Forestry Commission Scotland should form joint ventures with renewables firms.

Jonathan Hughes, director of conservation for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which opposed the leasing plan, agreed that the overriding aim of meeting the targets for new forest cover remained important.

"The restoration of woodland cover in Scotland is one of the most important challenges we face in Scotland," he said.

As well as its role in helping mitigate climate change, he believes new planting is crucial to enable species to adapt to the impact of rising temperatures.

Planting that joins up forest networks, forming "corridors", allows wildlife species to move around to cope with the changing climate.

Also high on the list, he believes, are public access and recreation, health benefits and air-quality benefits.

Robin Harper, the Green MSP, said a "more imaginative" approach was needed. "Our woodlands need investment, not asset-stripping, and this is therefore a welcome decision.

"It's now time for the SNP to prioritise community access to our forests."

Yet another radical big idea turns out to be a lame duck

THE manifesto that helped the SNP to its historic win in May 2007, breaking Labour's 50-year grip on Scotland, was one of the most radical in recent British political history.

But as the mid-point of their four years in power approaches, the Nationalists have less by the day to point to that suggests any radical change in Scotland.

Dumping the idea of leasing Forestry Commission land for 75 years – a privatisation even Margaret Thatcher shrank from – is just the latest flop.

Plans to introduce a local income tax, ditch student debt, reduce class sizes and give first-time home buyers a 2,000 grant have all fallen by the wayside, and its much-hyped Scottish Futures Trust has as yet built nothing.

Even the referendum on independence looks doomed to failure, although that is one policy they will not drop until it is voted down in parliament.

Their biggest contributions has been to freeze council tax and scrap bridge tolls. The "historic" concordat with councils has allowed local authorities a little more freedom, but not provided a tangible change people can see.

The SNP can point to the fact it is a minority administration and if it cannot persuade others of its arguments then it has to accept reality. But this is in essence an admission of weakness, because the new Scottish politics, as Mr Salmond put it, is all about the power of persuasion rather than of numbers.

Other policies, it claims, they did not have the money for – however, opponents have always claimed the money was never there and the promises were empty ones.

The Forestry Commission proposal was different, not least because it was a right-wing idea and not in the party's 2007 election manifesto. It seems to have been the pet idea of Mike Russell, who was conveniently moved to another ministerial job a few weeks ago and replaced by the solidly left-wing Roseanna Cunningham.

His point was that the sell-off was required to pay for desperately needed new trees and that there was no other means of financing that.

Unfortunately, as with ministers discussing the other failed policies before they were dropped, his words did not heed the fact that there was a consultation going on and made it sound like policy set in stone. Now the SNP has to suffer the ignominy of losing another big idea with almost nothing left in the cupboard.