Commercial Tree Plantations In The U.K. Proving To Be Ineffective For Helping The Climate Crisis

A Sitka Spruce is planted at the North Doddington site on March 22, 2018 in Doddington, England.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Commercial tree plantations have sprung up in Britain as a way to alleviate the climate crisis. The idea behind the tree farms is that the fast-growing non-native conifers can sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it. However, a new report shows that this plan is not actually helping the climate nor is it proving effective as a carbon store, according to The Guardian.

The main problem with the tree plantations is not that the planting of trees doesn’t help remove carbon from the atmosphere but rather that when the timber is harvested, it is used for less than 15 years and a quarter is burned. If the timber is taken to a paper mill or burned, it ends up releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.

In the U.K., 23 percent of the 2018 timber harvest was used for wood fuel while 56 percent was taken to paper mills. Just 33 percent of the wood taken to sawmills was used in construction, which is an ideal long-term solution for locking carbon into the structure without it escaping back into the atmosphere. However, 36 percent of the wood taken to sawmills was used for fencing, which only has a carbon-locking life span of 15 years, and 24 percent was used for packaging and pallets.

Suspected illegal logging seized by Indonesia police is seen in Kerinci, Riau Province November 20, 2007 in Sumatra Island, Indonesia.
  Dimas Ardian / Getty Images

The report was commissioned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The head of U.K. land policy for the organization, Thomas Lancaster, explained the issue with the tree plantations.

“There is no point growing a lot of fast-growing conifers with the logic that they sequester carbon quickly if they then go into a paper mill because all that carbon will be lost to the atmosphere within a few years.”

Lancaster added that they should not be justifying non-native forestry on carbon grounds if it’s not being used as a long-term carbon store.

The Committee on Climate Change plans to have 1.5 billion trees planted by the year 2050, which would require 74,000 acres of land a year. The forests are designed to help sequester carbon from the atmosphere while also serving a commercial purpose. The trees are planted on cheap land to avoid using high-quality agricultural land, including the blanket bogs of Scotland’s Flow Country. However, the bogs are drained for forestry and peat degrades, which ends up releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.

Lancaster says that it’s not enough to plant trees to make the climate safer. If the trees are planted in the wrong place, they could actually end up doing more harm than good, especially when it comes to climate change and biodiversity.

“If we’re serious about tackling the climate and ecological emergency there needs to be a huge government investment in capacity to get that right, otherwise we’re going to have lots of inappropriate planting which could be negative for the climate as well as biodiversity.”