Timber! Forests sale threat to CO2
Plans from the “greenest government ever” to privatise England’s forests challenge not just the livelihood of some 3,300 employees of the Forestry Commission, but the sustainable management of our forest heritage. As “carbon sinks”, forests absorb and store CO2 in the atmosphere – 15 million tonnes of CO2 a year in the UK alone. There appears to have been no climate change impact assessment of this proposal. Why not?
Unions at the Forestry Commission (Unite, PCS, Prospect and the GMB), representing its 3,240 employees in all grades, fundamentally oppose Government’s plans to break up and sell England’s forests. Communities living in and around England’s forests, from Nottingham to the Forest of Dean, are also angered by the threat to common rights and public access.
But there appears to have been no assessment by the Coalition of the threat to forests on the UK’s climate change strategy. A study for the Forestry Commission shows their vital role in tackling climate change. Forests remove CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. UK forests, including soils, are both a large store of carbon (estimated at around 790 MtC) and a system removing CO2 from the atmosphere (about 15 MtCO2 per year in 2007).
“Sustainable forest management can maintain the carbon store of a forest at a constant level while the trees continue to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and transfer a proportion of the carbon into long-term storage in forest products.”
Sustainable forest management, what the Forestry Commission does, is threatened by privatisation. Woodlands planted by the Commission since 1990, coupled to an enhanced woodland creation programme envisaged by the Commission for the next 40 years, could, by the 2050s, be delivering, on an annual basis, emissions abatement equivalent to 10% of total our greenhouse gas emissions. Such a programme would represent a 4% change in land cover and would bring UK forest area to 16% which would still be well below the European average. What woudl the future look like if the forests were broken up and sold?
Compared with, say, investing in new, low carbon technologies, woodland creation provides highly cost-effective and achievable way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The Committee on Climate Change considered that schemes cutting CO2 emissions by less than £100 per tonne of CO2 are cost-effective. Mixed woodlands managed sustainably can deliver CO2 abatement at between near- zero marginal cost to a maximum of £25 per tonne of CO2 – a lower costs than fossil fuel or nuclear power stations.
These assets must be managed wisely. Forests are “green workplaces”. They have a key role to play in the fight against climate change. “Private forest owners will require financial incentives to manage land for carbon sequestration”, the study argues. But trees and woodlands across the UK contribute to a wide range of policy objectives – recreation, biodiversity protection. Woodlands need to be planned so that these objectives are achieved together with absorbing and storing CO2.
As Jim Pratt blogged recently, the Forestry Commission’s post war plan “revealed the dismal failings of the private woodland owners to re-stock, and emphasised the need for a single, competent Forest Authority.”