Stuart Goodall: Time to make carbon history and meet climate targets by growing 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 2050. The petrol engine and gas heating boilers are curiosities in the Museum of Scotland, part of an exhibition about how society has adapted to a (very) low carbon economy and lifestyle.

The Scottish Government has met its climate change mitigation targets by the slimmest of margins, performing better than the rest of the UK and much of the rest of the world. This success was largely thanks to the determination of successive political administrations to plant more trees. Lots more trees.

This achievement was due to cross-party recognition in Holyrood in 2020 that planting trees and using more wood products was the most effective, most efficient and cheapest form of carbon capture and storage. A proven technology, unlike spending hundreds of millions of pounds pumping noxious gases under the seabed and crossing fingers in the hope that it won’t all leak back out again.

Now, this is no fake news. It’s a ­realistic future if we face up to the fact that we won’t meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets without upping our collective commitment to planting more forests and using more wood.

As well as stripping carbon out of the atmosphere, and locking it up in wood products, using more wood avoids emissions from energy hungry materials like steel, concrete and plastic whose manufacture produces huge volumes of carbon dioxide.

This future can be glimpsed. Modern, multi-purpose forests are appearing in the landscape, like Jerah, in the Ochils between Menstrie and Dunblane. Its design took into account flood risks, wildlife, public access and cultural history when it was planted, and it will provide wood for our sawmills across Scotland. Architects across Scotland are increasingly switching on to using more wood, recognising its suitability as a sustainable building material as well as its inherent attractiveness to people – few people are drawn to touch concrete or steel.

The continued deindustrialisation of Scotland from the 1990s has, inadvertently, put Scotland on course to meet its targets, but that process is coming to an end. We now need to force the pace of change or look for ways for it to be incentivised. The latter is easier to bear, especially if, as a politician, you want to be elected again. In my vision of 2050 Scotland, cross-party agreement was reached to increase tree planting rates from 15,000 hectares per year in 2025 to 25,000 hectares a decade later.

Farmers now benefit from shelter for their sheep and have a crop that pays for itself without subsidy. More of rural Scotland is open for leisure activities, from high-octane (but no emission) sports like mountain biking and Go Ape to quiet havens for people to walk and enjoy wildlife.

Once rare species of birds and ­animals like sea eagles and red squirrels are recovering in numbers, as woodland flora expands, thriving as a mixture of species grow in modern productive forests. Ordinary people are looking forward to living in attractive homes that are energy ­efficient and which will store their carbon emissions.

We have also reduced plastics in our oceans, as the kickback started gathering real pace following Sir David Attenborough’s Blue ­Planet – watched by millions on plastic-framed screens called TVs, some of which can be seen at the museum.

In addition, fewer communities across Scotland are being inundated by floods after studies at Jerah and elsewhere delivered a raft of new information on how targeted tree planting upstream could help reduce flood risks in downstream areas.

It sounds like a future nirvana – cleaner air, fewer floods, less plastic, abundant wildlife, more sustainable homes and a booming rural economy. However, it could ­happen - if politicians continue to be bold and plant more trees now. By doing that, they can deliver a cleaner, greener, more prosperous and more vibrant rural Scotland for future generations.

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