Forests go up, forests go down, but mostly down

A lit avenue outside Bethnal Green library

New woodland is an essential climate mitigation tool. So where is it?

Jay Richardson

by Jay Richardson
Sunday 3rd April 2022

As climate issues go, woodland management is not sexy. In fact, it’s an achingly boring mixture of sub-sections of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, nine different Forestry Commission woodland grant types, and an endless rabbit warren of devolved administrations. It’s also completely rammed with jargon. (Try reading the sentence “DECC contract AEA to prepare the main greenhouse gas emissions inventory but contract the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to prepare the data for the Sector 5 tables relating to Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry in the UK” without falling asleep.)

Wooden language aside, trees are vital to climate adaptation. They’re adept at storing carbon, reducing urban heat islands, decreasing soil erosion, filtering airborne particulate matter, and reducing flooding. The Conservatives promised great quantities of tree-planting in their 2010, 2015, and 2019 election manifestos. Often couched in sunlit-uplands “greening” rhetoric rather than climate adaptation, the 2019 manifesto even declares that the party would “expect all new streets to be lined with trees.” But a new tree is a new tree, I guess–you can’t be picky with your Conservative environmental policies.

New UK woodland planting, thousand hectares, 1976 to 2021. Source: Forest Research.

Those pledges never amounted to much, though, because conservation funding is both paltry and opaque: the Woodland Trust described one grants system as “tortuous”, “overly complex”, and “not fit for purpose” in 2017. The Forestry Commission’s latest annual report complains of uncertainties around its budget, constant shortfalls, and pay complaints from staff. The government’s £640 million Nature for Climate Fund announced in March 2020 was intended to fix that, but overall forest planting fell between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 financial years.

Data sonification of new tree planting in the UK, 1976-2021. The left channel is broadleaves and the right channel is conifers. A higher-pitched sound indicates a larger area of woodland planted. The sound is produced using recordings of bees from the BBC Sound Effects archive.

Nevertheless, we can celebrate a huge rise in broadleaf planting in the early 1990s. Broadleaf forests are ecologically more valuable than conifer plantations, which are usually just intended for timber harvesting and support far less biodiversity. But the UK added less broadleaf woodland in 2020-21 than in 1990-91, and the year to March 2017 saw the lowest planting levels for 30 years. Meanwhile, conifer coverage is rising again, and in 2017 it began outgrowing new broadleaf areas for the first time since 1993. Private investors often mix broadleaf with conifer to make their projects more profitable, encouraged by the government’s willingness to compromise on ecological value in order to attract private financing.

Ultimately, forest planting has been far more talked about than delivered. The Committee on Climate Change has tirelessly called for afforestation since its first ever report in 2008. In the 14 years since then, UK-wide forest cover has increased by about 6%. That’s better than nothing, but orders of magnitude away from the pace we need. If the graph of this data is intriguing and a little discouraging, its sonification just gives a sad sense of deflation: you can hear a determination to invest in diverse, native broadleaf woodland in the 1990s that just fizzled out in the early naughties and has never fully recovered. Our ecology probably can’t improve much until that enthusiasm returns.