Stuart Goodall: Attitude to growing more timber on Scottish farms needs a root and branch review

Confor Edinburgh promoting forestry and wood is a membership organisation that promotes sustainable forestry and low-carbon businesses.'copyright susan burrell photography'07813460658'
Confor Edinburgh promoting forestry and wood is a membership organisation that promotes sustainable forestry and low-carbon businesses.'copyright susan burrell photography'07813460658'
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The Scottish Government recently received its report card on climate change: “performing well, but more effort needed” was the conclusion of the highly-respected UK-wide ­Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

The CCC is an independent body that, over the last ten years, has advised the UK and devolved governments on how they can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and, once targets have been set, monitored and reported on their progress.

The report highlighted that, overall, good progress has been made in Scotland, but that rapid progress in decarbonising electricity production would need to be matched in future with greater action in sectors such as transport, agriculture, and heating if the pace of progress is to be maintained.

To make genuine progress, we need to look afresh at the relationship between those industries that can have a real impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, construction, farming and forestry are three industries that have tended to operate independently, with different cultures and ­identities, and often a sense of rivalry: farming versus forestry, rural versus urban. Yet they are intimately linked and could help Scotland to maintain its positive momentum in meeting climate change targets.

Around the world, best practice land use involves diverse systems in which food and wood are produced alongside the provision of other rural services such as renewable energy production, tourism, and nature ­conservation. The most sustainable towns and cities are those which ­utilise renewable materials and which care about where their resources come from.

The Scottish Government’s plans for the future are contained in its draft Climate Change Plan, published in January. When finalised early next year, this plan will set targets and strategies for the next 15 years.

In March, I gave evidence to the Holyrood committee scrutinising the plan and highlighted the opportunities to increase buy-in to a low-carbon Scotland by integrating farming, forestry, and sustainable construction. This picked up on the plan’s ­proposal to increase tree planting and the amount of Scottish wood which is locking up carbon in ­construction across the UK.

I suggested to the committee that when farmers plant trees on their land, that should be acknowledged as part of their sector’s contribution to tackling climate change. At present, it is simply recorded as an achievement of the forestry sector. If farmers were given due recognition for the carbon benefits of planting and integrating trees into their farming enterprise, then that could help to encourage more joined-up activity.

Peter Chapman MSP, a farmer in the North-East of Scotland for 40 years, told a recent conference organised by Confor, From Trees to Timber Homes, that a change of mindset was needed towards farmers who choose to plant trees. They should be regarded as successful farmers, not failed ones, he argued, because the ­diversification offered by tree planting could make their enterprises more profitable and sustainable in the long term. More tree planting on farms would also make a vital contribution to meeting Scotland’s world-leading climate change targets.

Trees grown for wood are a land use on a different time-cycle from traditional farming. At around 15-20 years, thinnings for firewood or woodchip provide the first income. At maturity, the trees will provide valuable products such as carbon-capturing construction timber that society needs to build and fit out new homes.

We have technologies to build ­modern towns and cities from wood, creating houses and flats so efficient that their heating bills are zero, and which lock up carbon for years, if not centuries. At our conference, Calum Murray of CCG Scotland described the enormous potential to grow Scotland’s off-site timber construction market and its ability to build warm, attractive and sustainable homes more quickly, more cost-effectively and more safely.

Scotland has a long history of ­driving innovation in urban living, and it is leading the world in reducing carbon. Meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets will become steadily more difficult as we move on from the easier actions to the more difficult. Working across different sectors will help maintain momentum. The forestry and wood sector has the potential to be an exemplar in this regard, providing solutions to other sectors and increasing rural employment and benefiting the environment at the same time.

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