New research commissioned by Scottish Forestry recently offered evidence that commercial forestry will be the mainstay of our climate emergency mitigation, as the UK pushes towards carbon targets for 2025.

The Quantifying the Sustainable Forestry Carbon Cycle report was based on work carried out by Forest Research. It assessed the different options for woodland creation and management from the perspective of carbon sequestration and a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Using a model-based approach, the research undertook a systematic, integrated and consistent assessment of different options for woodland creation and management, from the perspective of their potential to sequester carbon and mitigate GHG emissions. The modelling outputs were used to assess the climate change mitigation potential of a variety of woodland examples that are grown in the UK, including both conifer and broadleaves.

The outcomes provided firm evidence that it is our established spruce forestry that will capture the most carbon in the near future at 14 times more than broadleaves in the early years of growth. Even over an 80-year span, conifers can capture three times as much carbon as broadleaf natives, particularly if the timber is processed and used in products and building, which it currently is. One hectare of Sitka spruce planted in 2022 will achieve annualised GHG emissions mitigation of 19 ICO2 per year over the period 2022 to 2050.

Natural woodland needs time to establish itself, but the figures from Forestry Scotland show that within only a few years the spruce are comfortably outstripping broadleaves on carbon capture. In its early years, a commercial, fast growing woodland can soak up as much as 11 times more carbon emissions than native woodland. This gives the slower growing native woodlands, which we should be planting, time to establish and develop their complex network of habitats and ecosystems that benefit biodiversity.

We must conclude from this, that as well as our work on biodiversity and forest, wildlife and land management, the key to the future for climate change mitigation lies in spruce planting within a modern forestry system.

The further benefit from this will be a reduction in our reliance on imported timber. As the current energy crisis makes clear, over-reliance on external partners for the supply of strategic commodities can have extremely damaging consequences when that supply is interrupted. Using timber produced and processed within the UK locks carbon into much needed products, supports employment and also contributes to achieving climate targets.

The key to this is balance. Modern forestry is very different from the planting done even 40 years ago when monoculture planting was prevalent. As trees are replanted after felling or when creating new forests, the trees planted may still include the high performing spruce for all the reasons I outline above, but they now also include a good portion of broadleaves and open space. When FLS plants a new forest it now includes only 60% spruce with a mix of other species and open space alongside. This approach goes hand-in-hand with the need for diversity, providing a greater mix of habitats to support wildlife, while ensuring the supply of spruce for industry remains strong and, hopefully, gets stronger in the future.

Further benefits of modern forestry, where up to 60% spruce is grown, include mitigation against other climate related issues. Recent coverage of the impact of storm Arwen points to the importance of felling trees at the right time rather than allowing them to grow beyond their maximum mean annual increment (MMAI). Add to that, research demonstrates that tree planting high in a river catchment reduces the flow during extreme rainfall, and we can see that our trees will also help with the increase in flooding we are currently witnessing.

The key is to work in partnership with organisations and experts to create the modern forestry as an industry and climate emergency necessity. And our work goes beyond just planting trees, as it also includes deer and wildlife management, peatland restoration, providing space for recreation and working with ecologists on the wider issues of biodiversity. Forestry sits in the middle of all these activities – it’s why we are here – but modern forestry has to be mindful of how current practices create a legacy for future generations.

While there are many facets to the biodiversity debate, there is no doubt that home-grown timber ticks many boxes, not the least of which is that our industry employs 25,000 people, many of whom are highly skilled and in rural communities. The impact of reducing commercial spruce forestry would result in higher imports and threaten climate targets, while potentially creating the loss of jobs in sawmills, logging, management and other essential forestry roles.

A further consideration is the level of timber imports. Currently, 80% of our timber requirement has to be imported from well-managed European sources. However, as these countries play their own part in climate emergency mitigation, they cannot simply increase the amount of timber they export. Any increase in our import requirement could result in a reliance on timber from less well regulated countries with potentially less control on forestry practices. Whilst we have no way of predicting the future security of our timber imports, it would be reasonable to assume that given the importance of the resource for climate change mitigation and its flexibility to be used for fuel and construction – in every country in the world – it is likely to be in high demand and be more expensive in the future. It would therefore be responsible to reduce our dependency wherever possible, which points strongly towards a policy for the UK to promote home-grown timber for our own supply.

FLS is currently planting 25 million trees a year and harvesting millions of tonnes of timber for use across the country. Research and development is under way to improve the mechanical stiffness of Sitka spruce to support its greater use within timber manufacture. As engineered timber use increases, our home-grown timber is in a good position to be used within widely used processed products.

While it may be that we will never reach full self-sufficiency, the timber industry as a whole would do well to support both forestry and timber research that will reduce the staggering 80% of imports on which we are currently reliant. And as we face the increasing cost of living crisis as well as the climate emergency, being less dependent on importing must be the right way forward to achieve targets, reduce costs and protect jobs.

As well as planting the forests of the future and sustainably managing almost 400,000 hectares of timber-producing conifer and broadleaf forests, FLS’ activity in peatland regeneration and renewable energy generation places it at the forefront of the drive to implement transformational adaptation measures that will be required for the ‘new normal’ of a changed climate. If we retain our core purpose and support government targets with planting fast-growing trees that both store carbon and meet the need for homegrown supply, then we are helping secure a more resilient and robust timber industry for generations to come.