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Planned UK planting of forests expected to be the equivalent of 14 billion fewer kilometres being driven

A new study published in Nature Communications demonstrates the important role that planting new commercial and conservation forests could play in the fight against climate change. 

The planned UK planting of 600,000 hectares could sequester 0.5 to 1.7 billion kg of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2120 (cumulative). This is roughly the same as up to 14 billion fewer kilometres being driven over that same time. 

Typically, commercial forests resulted in the highest carbon uptake, as wood products are expected to replace higher-emitting products from other sectors. One novel approach in this study by Bangor University, the Government of British Columbia and the University of Limerick was to model a circular economy where construction timber at end of life is recycled as paper and paper reused for bioenergy. The second unique aspect was to accept that other sectors are under pressure to reduce the emissions from their products as well, and therefore the comparable benefit of wood products will go down in the future.

“Our goal was to undertake a really comprehensive carbon footprint assessment that considers the whole life cycle of carbon taken up by trees in new forests” says Eilidh Forster, a PhD student in Bangor University and lead author of the study. 

“Because these forests won’t be harvested for another 50 years, the standard approach of assuming current technology is inaccurate. Therefore, we decided to apply projections of future technology to better represent the likely long-term climate change mitigation achieved by harvested wood.” 

Some felled tree trunk ends close up with partly felled woodland in background.

A key aspect of this technology is carbon capture & storage (CCS). CCS extracts carbon dioxide during energy generation and locks it away underground. This would transform wood bioenergy into a “negative emission technology” capable of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere long-term.     

These results counter recent studies that suggest commercial forests act only as a short-term sink of carbon dioxide. In fact, these new results indicate that in the UK, new commercial conifer forests could deliver up to 269% more climate mitigation than semi-natural broadleaf forests by 2120. 

“Both commercial and conservation forests show potential for climate action,” said Caren Dymond, study co-author and researcher for the Government of British Columbia. 

“Decisions on when and where to plant new forests will also need to consider broad ecological, social, and economic needs. For example, enhancing biodiversity would favour a mix of forest types, including slower-growing and non-harvested broadleaf forests.”     

John Healey, study co-author and Professor of Forest Sciences in Bangor University, concludes: 

“New commercial forestry doesn’t necessarily have to be harvested in the future. Therefore, planting new commercial forests is a flexible way to contribute to long-term climate stabilisation goals, and is remarkably robust to future assumptions about technological progress in the economy.”

Publication date: 22 June 2021

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