Andrew Heald: Forest growth can help in many ways

REDUCING carbon is just the start of it, writes Andrew Heald

If we can expand our woodland cover, environmental and economic benefits can go hand in hand. Picture: PA
If we can expand our woodland cover, environmental and economic benefits can go hand in hand. Picture: PA

When forestry is mentioned in international environmental meetings, the focus tends to be on intact landscapes, particularly rainforest.

UK forestry hasn’t had a significant role in discussions on climate change or carbon storage. However, the UK is the third largest net global importer of timber (after China and Japan) and has woodland cover of only 12 per cent (one-third the EU average), so there is huge potential to do more.

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So it was welcome that Nicola Sturgeon chose her speech at the recent World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh, which attracted 500 delegates from almost 50 countries, to reaffirm the Scottish Government’s commitment to plant 100,000 hectares of woodland by 2022 – a challenging but very achievable target.

The objective of the World Forum was to better manage our natural resources and to help tackle some of our biggest global challenges, including climate change, resource scarcity and biodiversity loss. This week, far more delegates from many more countries gathered for COP21 in Paris to seek a legally binding, universal agreement on climate change, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2C.

Modern forests can deliver enormous benefits for our environment - not only by reducing carbon emissions. but also by supporting biodiversity and helping lessen flood risks. While growing interest in Carbon Capture and Storage has centred on hugely expensive and uncertain proposals to capture CO2 and store it under the North Sea, forestry offers a simpler, safer and much cheaper alternative – grow trees, use wood, replant trees.

Renowned architect Craig White highlighted at a recent conference that the forestry sector was “already in the carbon capture business” as trees soak up (capture) carbon - and that carbon can be stored in wood products, specifically by using much more wood in the built environment.

There is a tremendous opportunity available as the UK needs 200,000 more houses every year than it is building now. The aspiration to construct 100,000 custom-built houses annually is especially exciting, representing a £20 billion economic opportunity. “This is the biggest economic opportunity since the industrial revolution,” said Mr White. “Wood is the capture, wood is the storage.”

The opportunity to realise the benefits outlined by Craig White is even greater after George Osborne announced that the UK Government was cancelling the £1 billion competition to develop carbon capture and storage systems on power plants.

And if we can expand our woodland cover, environmental and economic benefits can go hand in hand.

Just this week, the economic potential of enhanced tree-planting was highlighted via the amazing statistic that direct employment in forestry and wood processing in Scotland rose by 50 per cent in the five-year period from 2008 to almost 20,000 direct jobs – during an economic downturn when other sectors were losing jobs.

And unlike other sectors, additional economic activity delivers enhanced environmental benefits - through the carbon capture and storage process highlighted by Craig White.

The majority of the output of Scottish forests helps to store carbon by going into the UK construction market, for everything from roof trusses and joists to the chipboard and mdf used to make our kitchen units. The development of innovative technologies such as CLT (cross laminated timber) means even more can be done.

The opportunity of expanding our woodland cover is enormous – for our economy and our environment. The idea of such a win-win scenario formed the basis of a discussion this year with Sepa and the Scottish Government’s Greener Scotland initiative, asking: ‘How can we include woodland expansion into the Scottish Governments aspiration’s on climate change ­mitigation?’

Confor and the University of Stirling are now collaborating in further research into the opportunities and challenges for woodland expansion in Scotland to create wide-ranging benefits, including contributions to climate change targets. Last month, Confor hosted a workshop for a wide range of public and private bodies on this issue; to gather opinion and fully understand the interest and concerns of relevant interest groups.

If we can make the obvious connections between climate change mitigation, an urgent need for more homes and a growing demand for sustainable timber, the potential for UK forestry is huge. The challenge for the sector is to ensure that we provide strong leadership and communicate the value of woodlands - not just timber, but also the wider environmental benefits.

And these messages must be communicated not only to foresters, but also to farmers, local communities and politicians.

• Andrew Heald is Technical Director, Confor: Promoting forestry and wood