View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Nature
12 April 2019updated 12 Oct 2021 5:52pm

Into the woods: should UK cropland be replaced by forest?

By India Bourke

It is hard to walk through any British woods without a sense of nostalgia creeping in under your feet; inherited memories of a time when forests carpeted the land and wolves stalked the shadows. If the Conservatives had better appreciated this leafy hold on the national psyche in 2010, they might not have been so caught out by the backlash against their plan to privatise the forestry commission. But, since then, they have learned their lesson.

Earlier this year Michael Gove announced £10m to boost children’s connection with nature.And now forests’ ancient associations are finding new life in a climate-addled world. According to a new study from Harvard Law School researchers, the UK could remove 12 years’ worth of its annual carbon emissions from the atmosphere if it re-forested land that’s currently used for grazing livestock and animal feed.

They have also calculated that if the cropland used to grow animal feed was instead diversified into producing fruit and vegetables, Britain could self-sufficiently provide each person’s recommended intake of calories and protein – and still offset around nine years of CO2 emissions.

Suggestions like this have a lot to like: planting more trees globally is one of the single best ways to simultaneously tackle both the climate crisis and the escalating rate of wildlife decline (animal agriculture has caused 65 per cent of global land use change, since 1960, according to the report).

But when walking deep in the woods, it is essential to remain clear-sighted.

The above report counsels self-sufficiency in food – yet unless the UK becomes vegan overnight, this would mean palming off our meat and dairy production (and their consequent emissions) on other nations.

In addition, growing more permanent trees in one country can result in felling them elsewhere.

The UK already imports more timber products than any other nation except China, and is the largest importer of wood pellets in the world.

The UK Confederation of Forest Industries (Confor) is consequently now pressing for a new “Think Global, Plant Local” campaign. This will urge the government to set a new annual planting target of 40,000 hectares by 2030 – over six times the present aspiration of just 6,000 hectares a year.

Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, has celebrated forestry’s ability to lock up carbon cheaply, arguing that just “£20 spent on tree planting can account for a ton of carbon emissions, whereas Carbon Capture Storage technology costs £500-£1,000 a ton”.

But while on the surface, these two ambitions – to replace cropland with woods, and to grow more commercial forests – seem complimentary, there are also complicating factors to consider in any carbon-capture calculation, such as the type of forests planted, the length of time they are left for, and their end purpose.

According to Dr Matthew Hayek, a co-author of the Harvard report, their research “modelled a return to native biodiverse forests, not forestry plantations of a single tree species.” The report also states that at least 30 years are needed before the forests are deemed to be at full carbon-capturing capacity.  

There are also concerns that some of the uses to which commercial forests are currently put can undermine their carbon-capturing virtue. Of particular concern is the amount of wood imported to fuel the UK’s growing biomass industry. 

Biomass energy combined with Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS) has been touted as a “Negative Emission Strategy”, which could help suck out carbon from the atmosphere through a constant cycle of growing and cutting down trees, burning them, and then storing the carbon released.

But researchers, such as Duncan Brack at Chatham House, have calculated that simply burning wood without capturing and storing the carbon is presently more carbon-intensive than most fossil fuels, especially when the full production chain (including shipping wood pellets across the world) is taken into account. 

Responsibly using forests to tackle climate change will thus require a wider understanding of how we consume both food and trees.

Not least since, while woods may be the realm of wolves and fairy tales, they have also always been a place where animals grazed in the undergrowth. At Knepp Estate in West Sussex, the woods are now being browsed once more by herds of cattle and pigs.

2019 could see the start of a renaissance for UK woodlands, but the choice between farming and forestry may not be as clear-cut as it first appears.

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Select and enter your email address The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU