New maps reveal how the UK could deliver the 2 billion trees recommended by government advisors

Wednesday 10 February 2021

  • New research analysing soil types in the UK can be used to determine where woodland expansion could be focused in the future as the UK plans for 2bn new trees
  • The analysis warns that planting the wrong type of tree in the wrong place could hinder the UK’s efforts to tackle carbon emissions
  • Native broadleaf trees offer the best return in locking up carbon and supporting the UK’s struggling woodland wildlife

New analysis from the RSPB reveals where new woodlands could be created to have the biggest impact on climate change and reducing carbon, whilst also being in harmony with nature. It warns that planting trees in the wrong areas could hinder the UK’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis and harm some wildlife.

In 2019, the UK Committee on Climate Change, advisors to governments across the UK, recommended that 2bn new trees and a 40 per cent increase in woodland would be needed to help the UK reach net zero by 2050. Combined with decarbonising the energy sector and changes in transport and other industries, more trees and woods will play a crucial role in how the UK reduces carbon emissions. 

This scale of land use change presents both opportunities as well as real risks for nature. Today, the RSPB is releasing new research which maps where tree planting in the UK could make the biggest difference for nature and climate change.

Scientists at the RSPB compared soil types to assess the climate risks of woodland creation. Some soils are rich in carbon, and although new woodlands could be created on these, there is a danger that we could lose more carbon from the soil than new trees would absorb, at least over the first few decades. Woodland creation on mineral soils, with lower levels of carbon, pose a lower risk for the climate.

The new maps reveal that the UK holds enough lower-risk soil to meet the Climate Change Committee’s most ambitious woodland expansion targets. However, the study warns that if the woodland expansion extends into the higher-risk soils area then the governments of the UK must adopt a strategic approach if they are to avoid increasing carbon emissions. 

More work is needed as even in lower risk areas any woodland expansion should consider the impact on existing species and habitats that may be harmed by certain types of woodland creation.

The study also looked at the differences in carbon sequestration made by different types of woodland.  Finding that, over the long-term, native broadleaf trees absorb and continue to hold more carbon and benefit wildlife than some fast-growing conifer species such as Sitka Spruce.

Tom Lancaster, the RSPB’s head of land policy said: “Today just 13 per cent of the UK is covered by woodland, and new woodlands could play a key role in tackling the climate and nature crises. For this to happen we need to ensure that we plant the right trees in the right places. This means looking at our native trees and woods so that we are expanding our broadleaf woodlands into areas of land that are not currently locking up carbon so that we can use our trees to absorb and store carbon long-term.

“However, the UK produces so much carbon that any expansion of our woodland can only play a small part in helping us to get to net zero. At a time when our woodland wildlife is in decline we should be looking at tree planting as a way of restoring vital habitat and tackling the nature crisis as much as the climate crisis. Just as native broadleaf trees are better for long-term carbon storage it is also essential for helping halt the decline of our woodland species. Through strategic planning and looking at how we protect nature we can revive our world.”

To find out more about the UK carbon maps visit this webpage.

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