In the future, trees will live fast and die young – Dr Richard Dixon

The Capon Tree near Jedburgh is the last remaining oak tree from the Jed Forest. In the future, trees will initially grow faster because of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere but are likely to absorb less of the greenhouse gas over their lifetime (Picture:  Neil Hanna)
The Capon Tree near Jedburgh is the last remaining oak tree from the Jed Forest. In the future, trees will initially grow faster because of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere but are likely to absorb less of the greenhouse gas over their lifetime (Picture: Neil Hanna)
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Scotland and the rest of the world need to find ways to combat climate change, reduce the rate of species extinction, while taking into account the needs of people, and trees will play a key role, writes Dr Richard Dixon.

A recent study found that forests will grow faster in the future climate changed world but they will also die younger. Trees that live fast and die young is all very rock and roll but it illustrates the complexity of trying to tackle both the climate crisis and the drastic global decline in nature, when everything is changing around us.

These trees will absorb more carbon dioxide than normal in their early years, which is great for tackling climate change in the short term, but are likely to absorb less over their whole lifetime, which is a difficulty for schemes which aim to use trees to lock up carbon emissions over the long term.

Last month’s global assessment report on biodiversity painted a grim picture of the state of nature around the world and its likely future unless we urgently change our ways.

The report said a million species are threatened with extinction and the rate of extinction is accelerating. Food and water supplies are at risk in all regions of the world.

READ MORE: Climate change: If we fail to act, we already know what will happen – Joyce McMillan

READ MORE: Plants now going extinct 500 times faster than the ‘natural’ rate

The major threats include land being cleared for agriculture, deforestation and climate change. The report called for ‘transformative change’ across technology, economy and society.

This echoes last year’s special UN climate report which called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented” changes in all sectors of society. Next year in Beijing, the world’s nations come together to assess how they are doing on protecting and restoring nature. Most of them will have to admit they are not doing too well.

Scotland is currently missing 12 of the 20 key international biodiversiy targets. Sadly a score of less than 50 per cent still makes us one of the better performers. The Beijing meeting is being talked of as the ‘Paris moment’ for nature, with hopes for a deal like the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, bringing countries together in concerted action.

We need to make sure climate and nature solutions work together and that we do not forget people in the equation. The twin crises of climate change and nature loss are very urgent. There will need to be compromises to tackle both issues. But, firstly, we need to make sure the two sets of solutions are not heading for conflict.

The biodiversity report points out that nature is best protected when decisions are made by local communities and indigenous people. The kind of solutions proposed for climate change can be huge, corporate and heedless of local people. A previous climate emissions reduction scheme called the Clean Development Mechanism produced a number of projects which created major conflicts with local communities.

A big solution for climate change that many countries are thinking of backing is BECCS – growing trees, burning them for energy or turning them into fuels, and storing the climate emissions with Carbon Capture and Storage. Our Government’s climate advisors suggest Scotland should be the UK testbed for BECCS. Quite apart from the huge cost and technical challenges of making BECCS work, it is a recipe for conflict between big business and local communities, and between mono-culture plantations and nature.

In Scotland, we do need to plant more trees and we also need to restore our damaged peatbogs and protect our natural forests, for the sake of both climate and nature, but local and global climate solutions need to work for both communities and nature.

Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland