Forestry 'can make broad contribution to tackling climate change'

2 February 2017

Forestry has a much broader contribution to make to tackling climate change than it is currently given credit for, Confor's Chief Executive told a Scottish Parliament committee.

Stuart Goodall told the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee: "There are three big areas in terms of emissions - agriculture, transport and industry. Forestry can contribute on the agricultural side by planting on farmland - and it can contribute in terms of industry.  

“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.  

"We have a large manufacturing industry based around using wood, which has a positive carbon balance as we lock up carbon in these wood products - and the process of producing them releases far less energy than creating concrete, steel, brick or plastic. 

"Wood manufacturing in Scotland has scope for further growth and it should be recognised as helping industry as a whole to have a positive impact on the carbon balance." 

Later, Mr Goodall said there were real opportunities to use more timber for housing, and construction generally. Innovative products like cross-laminated timber and glulam allowed timber to be used for larger and higher buildings, but architects were often "over-specifying" due to a lack of understanding, which meant imported timber was often used in housing when Scottish products were suitable. 

The REC committee was questioning a range of witnesses on the Scottish Government's latest Draft Climate Change Plan, published in January - and specifically, how forestry could contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

John Mason MSP, an SNP member of the committee, asked if the increased planting ambitions - with the 10,000 hectare annual target being raised in stages to 15,000 hectares by 2024-5 to help meet climate change targets - were realistic. 

Stuart Goodall said: "The targets are achievable, but we have we not achieved them in the past - why? Because planting has been supported through grants in a system designed for farming, not forestry, which is not necessarily fit for purpose and creates problems." Being tied into Common Agricultural Policy cycles depressed planting, he added, as it always tailed off as a new CAP cycle approached. The long and costly process of applications to plant being approved was also a problem, he said. 

"If we leave CAP [following Brexit], we have the opportunity to design these systems to suit ourselves [with]... a separate system of grant funding to plant trees," said Mr Goodall. "The Mackinnon report [to speed up the processes to increase planting] can help. If these things were in place, we would have hit the 10,000 hectare target because there is land out there, and interest out there." 

George McRobbie, Managing Director of Tilhill Forestry, said the existing approvals process was "burdensome, inefficient and added very little value" - but he was optimistic that the Mackinnon proposals would make a real difference. 

Mr McRobbie said he thought there was "a good pipeline" of planting coming through to hit the 10k target: "It is a stretch target but not overly ambitious." 

Charles Dundas, Public Affairs Manager for the Woodland Trust in Scotland, said he thought the 10,000 hectare target would be hit this year, as there was "pent-up demand" for planting from earlier years, when planting was much lower. 

Mr Dundas thought the increase in Scottish Government funding for planting, to £40 million, was welcome but noted that money from that budget would also need to be used for areas like maintenance, management and tree health. 

Stuart Goodall explained that funding would be required, but perhaps less than historical figures would indicate: "The average cost of planting in the last five years has been higher because we have planted a higher proportion of broadleaf trees rather than conifers.  Going forward, we expect a higher proportion of softwood trees in applications and that will bring down the average cost, as conifers are cheaper to plant." 

Mr Goodall said he thought there might be a glut of applications as landowners tried to plant under the existing scheme before Brexit, and he urged the Scottish Government to "keep the envelope open" and not turn away planting schemes. 

Several witnesses said the calculation of carbon benefit also had to consider existing woodland. Mr Goodall called for regular monitoring of forest cover in Scotland, expressing concerns that when trees were harvested, they were not always replaced - or replaced very slowly, which meant tree cover, and carbon benefit, was lost. 

REC committee convener, Conservative MSP Edward Mountain, said: "The whole issue of existing woodlands is critical and the committee will want to look at that...and make sure we are not losing the trees we have got."