Stuart Goodall: A central plank of the election should be climate change – and more trees

Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood
Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood
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It’s election time again! ­Nowadays they seem to come around as quickly as ­Christmas. So much so it appears we’re combining them this year.

But this election is different and in a worrying way….

A new forest in Northumberland is starting to get underway ' but all the parties contesting this election should make a commitment to do more to lock away carbon in woodlands and increase its use in construction

A new forest in Northumberland is starting to get underway ' but all the parties contesting this election should make a commitment to do more to lock away carbon in woodlands and increase its use in construction

It may be a result of the apparently never-ending saga of Brexit, but I’ve detected a real lack of interest in this election from people I speak to both in and outside of work. Perhaps fatigue with politics has set in, but from political lobbyists to neighbours to family members, I’m hearing a variation on “I just can’t get interested, never mind excited, about this election”.

That’s understandable, but it’s also a danger. The UK Government is a major global player and it has been in the forefront of pressing for action to tackle the threat of climate change. Who’s in power matters, and the next government needs to know its election promises will be remembered.

Here in Scotland, people can take pride that the Scottish Government has led in recognising the climate emergency and acting to both reduce emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere. However, the task is made easier if the UK Government is similarly committed to act where it has reserved powers, including ­fiscal and regulatory.

Brexit has engulfed UK politics for more than three years and distracted and detracted from other vitally important matters. We need to ensure politicians are reminded of the importance of urgent action on carbon.

Climate change was identified in a YouGov poll as the second most important issue for young people in the 2019 election, after Brexit. The environment is rising up the agenda for voters of all ages.

This has been referred to as “the climate election” and as Chris Stark, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said: “It is enormous – there is no bigger challenge.” In response, the parties are committing to acting on the climate emergency in their manifestos, but is this box-ticking or are they serious?

In the forestry sector, we’re looking for the new UK Government to tackle its utter failure to drive up tree planting in England and smash the ‘business as usual’ approach to building homes which sees high-carbon ­materials like brick, steel and ­concrete preferred to wood, which locks up carbon and requires little energy to produce.

We also need the next UK Government to support management of neglected woodland to let in light to support greater biodiversity and stimulate tree growth, to lock up more carbon.

For this election, Confor wants the parties to commit to plant 30,000 hectares annually (about 60 million trees) by 2025. At the time of writing, both the Conservatives and Lib Dems have accepted this, with Labour still to declare its position. The Lib Dems also highlight the need to produce more home-grown wood, which will lock up carbon and help displace more energy-intensive materials.

When speaking to UK politicians, we need to cite the success of ­Scotland which comfortably ­surpassed its 10,000 hectare target last year, achieving 11,200 hectares. Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, has supported Confor’s 2030 ambition and we would now like to see this adopted by the Scottish Government.

I am excited by a national endeavour to plant more trees and use more home-grown wood. Forests planted to modern standards for sustainability can be rich in nature and support local jobs. I’m privileged to see how wood is being used in homes and offices to create attractive places to live and work that also reduce atmospheric carbon.

My frustration is that UK politicians haven’t yet shown the political leadership needed to rise to the climate challenge. There were hopeful signs from Zac Goldsmith, one of the greenest MPs on the Conservative benches, who announced plans for a new forest in Northumberland in September, while a cross-party group of MPs recently committed to increasing the use of wood.

But we need to ensure politicians clearly hear the voices calling for greater action to tackle the climate emergency, now and after 12 December.

For the 2019 election, we have produced a simple, three-point plan – plant more trees, use more home-grown wood, and manage our woodlands better. If we can get this message heard, and hold the new government to account, we can make a meaningful contribution to mitigating against the damaging impacts of climate change.

Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood.