Trees are not only symbolic of our national effort to tackle climate change, but are an important component of that endeavour. Yet the Government is off track to meet its targets and could be bolder still in its ambition. As ministers finalise a revised Net Zero Strategy before the end of the month, they should strengthen incentives for businesses to plant more trees across the country to improve the environment, economy and public well-being.
The Conservative Party has long appreciated the importance of trees to people and nature, to the extent that David Cameron adopted the oak tree as our party’s logo in 2006. That’s why the Conservatives committed to planting 7,000 hectares of woodland in England by the end of this parliament, with a legal duty to extend woodland cover to 16.5% of England by 2050.
We have a long way to go to reach that target. Woodland in England has almost doubled in the past century from over 5% in 1920 to 10% today – but that’s still a third less than a thousand years ago. By contrast, Scotland and Wales enjoy much greater coverage of 19% and 15%, respectively. We will need to accelerate our efforts to meet our targets and restore England’s historic levels of tree cover.
Our woodlands are essential to our environment and people. They absorb climate-warming carbon and can mitigate flooding and overheating. They also filter pollutants from water, provide habitats for wildlife and recreational spaces for people, as well as generating a supply of timber for domestic industries. Growing trees can thus make our country more prosperous. The Office for National Statistics estimates that in 2017 woodlands in England delivered benefits to society and the economy worth £1.6 billion.
Trees are also crucial to our food security. They can support food production by protecting livestock and crops from adverse weather, by improving soil quality, or by growing fruit and nuts. Once our post-Brexit farm subsidy reforms are fully implemented, some farmers may also plant woodland on unproductive land to diversify their businesses, taking advantage of green farming payments supporting tree planting. Farmers, along with local authorities, are already benefiting from grants as part of the government’s Nature for Climate Fund, which is investing £675 million in tree planting across the UK.
Yet, despite these benefits, woodland creation remains stubbornly low. Planting rates in England need to treble by the next election, and public money alone will not help us meet our 2050 woodland cover target: private investment is required. We can get England to plant more trees in three ways while helping solve some of the environmental challenges facing us now.
First of all, we can unlock private investment for tree planting from the aviation industry by creating a gold-standard domestic carbon offset market for flyers. Doing so will help limit the climate impact of air travel in the short to medium term while sustainable aviation fuels and zero-emission flight technologies develop. This would replace the much-maligned UN scheme and was one of the policies from the Conservative Environment Network’s (CEN) sustainable aviation manifesto that I signed earlier this year.
There is already a Woodland Carbon Code which measures the climate benefits of new woodland and facilitates the trading of carbon credits from tree-planting in the UK. This code could provide credits for the new aviation offset scheme. While airlines should be mandated to offer offsets for the flight’s total emissions, passengers should be free to choose whether to buy them. It would create new demand for woodland credits without harming the competitiveness of British airlines.
Secondly, housebuilders could pay farmers to create woodland on unproductive land to meet nutrient neutrality requirements. This EU-derived rule safeguards protected wildlife sites but is blocking 120,000 essential new homes in 74 planning authorities. As woodlands can reduce nutrient run-off into rivers, we should get nutrient mitigation schemes up and running by setting national standards for measuring nutrient reduction and accrediting projects, planting trees while building homes and protecting our rivers.
Finally, the government should back my CEN colleague Jerome Mayhew MP’s Bill to set reporting requirements and limits on construction emissions (embodied carbon) to boost demand for British-grown timber. It would discourage building with carbon-intensive materials like steel and promote domestic timber to lock up carbon in buildings whilst also growing our country’s commercial forestry sector. As a third of emissions related to timber are due to transporting it – we import two-thirds of timber used in construction – these new regulations will incentivise builders to buy British, supporting domestic tree-planting. Due to our excellent UK Forestry Standard, commercial tree-planting also delivers benefits for wildlife, and conifer trees can provide habitat for some of our most treasured species, including red squirrels.
I urge ministers to consider these three market solutions to meet our manifesto pledge to restore England’s woodland cover and demonstrate our ongoing commitment to the environment ahead of the next election. Creating markets for woodland carbon and water quality improvements and sending a clear demand signal to the commercial forestry sector would unlock private finance to deliver our tree targets in a distinctly Conservative way.
First published by CapX. John Baron MP (Basildon and Billericay) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.