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

Forests may be the realm of wolves and fairy tales, but they have also always been a place where animals grazed in the undergrowth.

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It is hard to walk through any British woods without a sense of nostalgia creeping in under your feet; of a time when forests carpeted the land and wolves stalked the shadows. Sometimes these images are accompanied by even more ephemeral faces still; of unicorns and elves, and small girls in red cloaks.

If the Conservatives had better appreciated this leafy hold on the national psyche, perhaps they would not have been so caught out by the backlash against their plan to privatise the forestry commission in 2010. 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.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.