41% forestry cut will torpedo net zero

  • 01 Feb 2024
  • General News

Blog by George Anderson, PR and Communications Officer at Woodland Trust Scotland (also published in the RSGS magazine)

The Scottish Government recognises we need more trees and sets ambitious woodland creation targets. Yet it is proposing to slash £32m from the public money that drives the forestry sector, scuppering any chance of meeting those targets. 

Society cannot suddenly stop all greenhouse gas emissions. Countries are not signing up to zero emission targets, they are signing up for net zero targets. We need to produce fewer greenhouse gasses while also capturing some already in the atmosphere. 

Trees are expected to do much of the heavy lifting. They are the ultimate carbon capture and storage machines. Woods and forests absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries. The entire ecosystem plays a role, including the living wood, roots, leaves, deadwood, surrounding soils and associated vegetation.

It makes absolute sense then that the Scottish Government has increased its woodland creation targets annually as a key element of Scotland’s commitment to be net zero by 2045. Unfortunately, the amount of new woodland created has fallen over each of the last five years. The proposed cut will only serve to make the gap between targets and delivery ever wider.

It takes a very long time for a tree to grow to maturity, so forestry does not fit the mould of most other business, investment or commercial lending models. The bulk of costs come right at the start of the cycle – in ground preparation, fencing and management of grazing animals – several decades before any payday can be expected. As a result, public money is needed as a catalyst before large scale woodland creation happens. This has been the case for over a century since Britain’s lack of trees was identified as a problem after WWI. Whether it is a commercial spruce plantation, a native woodland for nature conservation or a shelter belt on a farm or croft, this public money comes to land managers in Scotland today via the Forestry Grant Scheme.

The Forestry Grant Scheme is pivotal in driving the woodland creation the Government says it wants, as well as maintenance of existing woods. The announcement in December that it faces a 41% cut was a shock.

Scotland has better tree cover than the rest of the UK but is poorly wooded compared to most of Europe. Around 18% of Scotland has tree cover compared to a European average of 37%. We import forest products on a massive scale. Even before the climate and nature emergencies are factored in – it would be a good thing to have more trees. With them factored in, it becomes an urgent necessity.

Net zero will only be possible if we ramp up the nation’s tree cover. We are already failing to create more woodland fast enough. Cutting the money available to stimulate woodland creation is totally at odds with a net zero ambition. 

The cut will also cause chaos in the forestry supply chain. Nurseries must anticipate how many saplings will be needed for planting at least two or three years ahead. A cut of the scale proposed will lead to an unexpected collapse in demand and the destruction of millions of young trees. Jobs will be lost in fragile rural areas and a blow will be struck to the confidence of the sector. Forestry will be in a weaker position to play its part in the climate fightback even if the grant pot is restored in future. 

It is possible potential applicants may become fatigued by a grant system that becomes a game of roulette. Applications take time and resources, so it is discouraging to be rejected not because your scheme lacks merit but because the grant pot is empty. 

Scotland’s forestry sector, from commercial timber producers through to native woodland conservationists, stands ready to meet the challenges of the climate and nature emergencies. Government needs to step up to play its part. Warm words, bold targets and admirable ambitions will not stop climate change unless followed by appropriate investment. 

The Scottish Government has stated its ambition is to create 18,000 hectares of new woodland in the 2024/25 financial year. It is budgeting for a grant pot that will support half of that. It will fall short of its woodland creation target next year and be on a trajectory to fall far short of its target to achieve 21% woodland cover by 2032. Net zero by 2045 becomes little more than a fantastical dream.