CONFERENCE: Progress towards UK Net Zero goals is “way off track”

12 December 2023

The UK is “rubbish at planting trees” and needs to draw on the success of the past to turn around the decline, a Climate Change Committee (CCC) speaker told the conference.

Dr Niki Rust, Head of Land, Agriculture and Nature at the CCC, independent adviser on strategies to support the climate change ambitions of the UK Government and devolved administrations, said tree planting was “way off track”.

“To reach net zero by 2050, we advised [the UK Government] the target of planting 30,000 hectares of trees per year by 2025, increasing to 50,000 hectares by 2035. We advised that tree cover, both conifer and broadleaf, [should] increase from 13% to 18% across the whole of the UK by 2050.” [The UK Government has since committed to a statutory target of reaching at least 16.5% by 2050].

Currently, she said, the UK Government’s efforts to reach the target was “way off track due to our inability to plant”. The destruction wrought by Storm Arwen and diseases meant that the UK reached a point where the net amount of trees planted in 2021 was approaching zero.

Dr Rust added: “We have become rubbish at planting trees over time. We can do it and have done in the past and that gives me hope.”

She urged future tree planting policies to recognise that the extremes of climate change were likely to increase, saying: “We need to consider the permanence of carbon credits, planting more diverse and resilient tree stock and better-designed woodlands. Forests resilient to climate change help protect nature. Nature is important in helping us get to net zero, it underpins everything.”

Stuart Goodall, Confor’s CEO, also addressed the net zero issue, expressing frustration that wood wasn’t more prominent in the conversation.

“Homegrown wood has a valuable role beyond net zero [but] support in public policy has been patchy,” he said. “Current strategies and standards say almost nothing about it.”

“Standing on a global stage saying you will lead from the front, you then have to deliver on your statements, not only achieving at home, but with our global contribution to net zero, because future imports are not going to be available.

“I want to establish why wood production is good, who needs to know, and make sure those audiences understand increased wood production, for timber security and to secure that future supply, to ensure public policy changes do not inadvertently undermine that.”

Andy Leitch, Confor’s Deputy CEO, said it was no surprise the UK was importing so much wood when it only had forest cover of 13% against a European average of 46%.

The future timber ‘supply squeeze’ meant a challenging balancing-act between supply and demand of wood in the UK, Mr Leitch said. This involved more recycling of wood and growing the ‘value chain’, so timber was used to create higher-value products whenever possible. Over time, there had to be more onshore manufacturing of wood products, while there was huge potential to replace petrochemical-based products with wood-based alternatives, he added..

While the overall import figure for wood products (including pulp and paper) is currently 81%, it is 66% for softwoods, with potential to reduce this, said Mr Leitch. This would mean planting more sitka and Norway spruce as that was what the construction sector wanted. “There is a massive opportunity to increase the amount of timber used in construction,” he added.

Dan Ridley-Ellis, Head of Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University, highlighted the global pressure on wood supply: “As the world becomes more affluent, we will need more wood.”

He urged delegates to build enthusiasm about forestry and wood by “planting seeds in forests and in people's minds”.

His current research involves identifying new hardwood species with potential to use in construction. This required repeated testing and large volumes of data. Dr Ridley-Ellis stressed that hardwoods will only ever be a small part of construction: “Softwoods are vital, hardwoods are the icing on the cake and we need everything.”

Dr Ridley-Ellis urged planting with purpose: “A forest planted for nature needs to wash its face by producing timber and providing money for management.”

He continued: “We can always make use of wood and it does not always have to be super-high quality.” He called for a change in mindset towards fast-growing trees, explaining: “Just because they are fast-growing doesn't mean they are less dense or less strong.”

Dr Eilidh Forster of Bangor University said wood had to be used “incredibly efficiently” and that ambitious planting targets had to have “duration” and not just be short-termist. “Getting more trees into the ground is complicated and time-consuming,” she said.

“Any climate change strategy must be supported with planting scenarios that have duration, under which we moderate the way we use wood, not just using more but by doing more with the wood we already use.  At its heart must be a vision that everyone can buy into, including [agreement] on the role of forestry in a circular bioeconomy.

“It must span land-use, the environment and the built environment, waste and energy. It will include using more wood, expanding domestic forestry and production, increasing support and advocacy. It will not only set targets, but introduce [actions] that support that change: new planting, and better transparency into the sector, better reporting on waste and reducing waste by implementing better reuse and recycling, perhaps mandatory demolition plans for all new builds, making timber more recoverable in the first place.”