Britain invests in planting forests to fight climate change

In the race to reach carbon neutrality, the British government and other private stakeholders have set out on a daunting task: reforesting Great Britain by planting around 75,000 acres of woodland each year by 2025. The goal is to off-set Britain’s carbon emissions by using newly grown forests to capture carbon. Special Correspondent Willem Marx reports as part of ‘Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.'

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    At the UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow, one issue will dominate discussions: how to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to help slow global warming. One way is to cut emissions from the use of fossil fuels.

    But there are also ways to reduce the C02 already in the atmosphere called carbon capture, or carbon sequestration. Trees do it naturally–and that's why deforestation has accelerated climate change and why scientists argue for rapid reforestation.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Willem Marx reports now on how the United Kingdom is making a big investment in replanting its forests. This story is part of our ongoing series, Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change.

  • Willem Marx:

    Centuries of building towns and burning firewood has left the UK with far fewer forests than most other countries in Europe.

    But this year several massive efforts are underway to help re-blanket Britain with trees through the work of civil servants, like Jim Lee, who drove us through his local countryside in Northumberland to visit a managed forest called Slaley.

  • Jim Lee:

    We're the largest land manager in England.

  • Willem Marx:

    As head of woodland creation at Forestry England, a government agency partially funded by taxpayers, he told us he wants to help rebuild hundreds of rural woodlands by planting 5,000 acres over the next five years.

  • Jim Lee:

    It's a relatively modest contribution from Forestry England. But it allows us to start on that journey to be a serious force in woodland creation in England.

  • Willem Marx:

    His group is just one of many here—some public, some private—working to expand carbon capture capacity—by together planting an area the size of Manhattan every ten weeks.

  • Willem Marx:

    For people who don't know anything about the forestry industry in this country. How ambitious are these targets that have been set?

  • Jim Lee:

    Yeah, hugely ambitious. You know, it's a 10 fold increase in woodland creation targets, really. And we've got a government which is foursquare behind that.

  • Willem Marx:

    Is it achievable?

  • Jim Lee:

    It is yeah, yeah. The offers that we have available are really revolutionizing, I think, the approach to woodland creation in this country.

  • Willem Marx:

    These new subsidy "offers" from the UK central government allow landowners that want to create new woodland to draw on almost a billion dollars of fresh funding. Forestry England helps select, then support suitable sites, leasing the land from owners in some cases, or else offering payments to plant trees rather than plough fields.

    The past few months Lee's helped sift through dozens of applications—ranging from small local governments to large private landholders—to see if they meet requirements.

  • Jim Lee:

    When we have these sites come through, we'll assess all of them. And we'll pick out those ones where we can make the most impact for nature recovery, and for carbon sequestration.

  • Willem Marx:

    This past August Laura Redhead and Paul McCabe won approval from Forestry England for the city council where they work, which just a year earlier had decided to transform these 150 acres of fields into a forest.

  • Paul McCabe:

    It's what needs to happen. It's part of the pathway to, you know, zero carbon, and it's an essential pathway.

  • Willem Marx:

    And the pair told us they're happy to have added the word "woodland" to their otherwise ordinary job titles.

    Farmers have been sowing crops like the one that's just been harvested here for centuries. But in three months' time, they'll be planting trees here. In three years there will be some 81,000 saplings, and in three decades all this—will be forest.

    This wheat field turned woodland's new owner will be the ancient city of York, which declared a climate emergency in 2019. Paula Widdowson is the city councilwoman responsible for the environment.

  • Paula Widdowson:

    It will be a carbon sink. The posh word that everybody uses is carbon sequestration, But I can't spell that, so I prefer carbon sink. It's also massive on biodiversity, so the more plants we can get, the more animals we'll get, the more insects we get, the better it is.

  • Willem Marx:

    Transforming a few fields will offset just a fraction of the city's carbon emissions, but Widdowson says the project will encourage action elsewhere.

  • Paula Widdowson:

    On its own, York cannot prevent a climate crisis. If we wanted to mitigate everything that's going on, we would have to do 100 of these ones. So we've done 1-percent. However, by putting it all up, by making it happen, we've introduced people to the idea they can make a difference.

  • Willem Marx:

    But not all trees are created equal when it comes to carbon capture, so as similar efforts scale up across Britain, scientists are racing to understand the most effective forest combinations.

  • Charles Nicholls:

    If you want to change the way people understand, get rewarded, all the rest of it, you have to do like for like kind of comparison.

  • Willem Marx:

    Hundreds of miles away in the hills of central Wales, a non-profit called the Carbon Community hopes to identify this important data.

    Founder Charles Nicholls showed us round the growing Glyndwr Forest—the largest tree carbon capture experiment in Britain.

  • Charles Nicholls:

    It really started with a big idea, which is, could we make new forest creation, you know, fundamentally better at sequestering carbon. And if we could, then all of those national initiatives to plant, you know, so many thousands of acres, could be made dramatically more effective.

  • Willem Marx:

    More than 25,000 trees over 26 acres are split into eight treatment zones, with separate tree types and soil additions that allow scientists to monitor the carbon capture effectiveness of various combinations.

  • Charles Nicholls:

    You need to take multiple samples, you need to take them as a baseline before you plant and after you plant them several years on etc. It is, it is very expensive, you basically have to burn the sample in order to then understand how much energy is in it. And that will tell you how much, how much organic carbon is stored in the soil.

  • Willem Marx:

    Elsewhere in Wales, a carbon capture giant from California is capturing imaginations.

  • Kid 1:

    Wait, can I fill it in?

  • Kid 2:

    Yea. Let's do it together.

  • Willem Marx:

    Like any other tree, the sequoia, starts life as a tiny sapling. But unusually, it can grow to 250 feet and lock up hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide over thousands of years.

    Graham and Angela Bond are marking their 40th wedding anniversary by planting one together.

  • Graham Bond:

    In 3,000 years' time, it'll be in the, hopefully, in the same spot. That's quite an emotional experience.

  • Willem Marx:

    Recently recovered from surgery to remove a brain tumor—Graham is celebrating life by offsetting a lifetime of carbon emissions.

  • Graham Bond:

    If one tree can soak up, what is it, 1,400 tons of carbon? You know, it's an amazing—it's an amazing thing the planet can do to—to replenish itself.

  • Willem Marx:

    For the legacy he's leaving on this hillside he has paid a for-profit enterprise about $700.

    Henry Emson runs this business, called One Life One Tree, and says the price tag provides value for money.

  • Henry Emson:

    It's showing people there's something that they can do about their carbon footprint. For the price of half a mobile phone, managing to do something to take out your entire lifetime carbon footprint is an affordable price for what we pay for the outcome.

  • Willem Marx:

    Available land in Britain is limited, and Emson says this private project can complement other public programs.

  • Henry Emson:

    I don't imagine for a second that we should be covering the UK in sequoias. What I do think is that we need to think carefully about tree planting strategy for the purpose of addressing climate change.

  • Willem Marx:

    Few countries on earth have enough free land for forests to offset all existing emissions. But for many—like Britain—it's one of several tools that in combination could help them hit their net zero targets.

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