Ash, Elm, Oak or Birch: A reforestation revival which could help prevent global warming

Great tree-hugging news! The UK has (technically) finished planting its first new forest in over 1000 years! The National Forest, spread across the Midlands villages of Moira, Donisthorpe and Overseal, was once quarried, mined and heavily polluted land in the form of 500 abandoned industrial sites. Now though, this area is covered in a canopy of over 8 million trees, and hundreds of kilometres of hiking and biking trails! The first tree was planted around a quarter of a century ago, and although the forest has been termed complete, it’s still growing. The National Forest company hopes to get this total up to 16 or 17 million trees!

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The National Forest area / Wikimedia Commons

This large-scale tree planting is proving that not only are projects like this just good value for money (over 25 years the forest has cost £60 million, which is the same as only two miles of motorway!?), but can also have immense social, economic and ecological benefits. For starters, the economic benefits of projects like this are undeniable: the creation of the forest has formed 5000 new jobs to this area of the Midlands, and brings in an estimated 7.8 million visitors every year! Ecologically, the National Forest (and other wooded paradises) have enormous impacts in biodiversity, bringing in a range of new or increasing bird, mammal and insect species – and it all develops so quickly! Those trees planted 25 years ago are now so high (30 ft tall) and thick they need to be thinned by a forestry team, whilst the hectares of youngest trees remain only saplings and whips for now!

Sadly, we’re in a world where funding for these kinds of projects are still few and far between. In 2015 only 700 of the 5000 targeted hectares of woodland were actually planted in the UK (Forestry Commission documentation?), and although our government holds the ambitious goal of planting a further 11 million trees by 2020, even if we do succeed we’ll still be sitting at the bottom of the European league table for tree cover.

It’s vital that we fix this, and quick! For example, recent research warns that without our intervention and forest re-development, all the ash trees in the UK and across Europe are likely to be wiped out through the merciless attack of both the bright green borer beetle and a fungus that causes ash dieback. Research has also indicated, for a long time now, the importance of woodland and forest for the global environment.

We all learn about the process of photosynthesis at school – whereby plants’ absorption of carbon dioxide and water becomes sugar and oxygen.

6CO2 + 6H2O > Light > C6H12O6 + 6O2

                                (Carbon dioxide + Water)                        (Sugar + Oxygen)

The term carbon sequestration isn’t used on quite such regular basis though, but refers to the long-term storage of carbon dioxide (CO2), and other forms of carbon, to mitigate global warming. The planting of new and growing forests is a form of biosequestration – basically the biological process and manipulation of carbon sequestration. Reforestation is very effective in this process, by incorporating the CO2 into the natural environment’s biomass. However, for it to stay successful these forests must either remain well maintained and healthy, or used for later construction. The burning or rotting of the wood would simply re-release the carbon into the atmosphere, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid!

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Sequestration process / Wikimedia Commons

Each tree in the National Forest, and likely any UK-based forest, is estimated, over an 80-year life span, to sequester average of 79kg of carbon, or 290kg of carbon dioxide. So far since 1991, 50, 000+ tonnes of carbon have been sequestered by the National Forest, equating to the net removal of 180,000 tonnes of CO2 gas from the atmosphere. This sounds impressive (and obviously any removal of CO2 is great), but this amount sequestered per year equates to only 0.05% of the UK’s contribution of carbon emissions.

The most recent government publication on emissions, indicates that Energy supply (e.g. fossil fuels) remains the largest emitting sector of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, standing at a whopping 29%! Transport, coming in second, only lags slightly behind at 24%, with Business (17%), Residential (13%), Agriculture (10%), Waste management (4%), and everything else (4%) behind. The good news (yes, there is good news) is that just between 2014 and 2015 most of these emitters decreased significantly, and in 2016 CO2 emissions on the whole dropped a fantastic 5.8% due to the massive 52% drop in coal use! 

Tree planting and re-forestation alone cannot meet the UK’s long term, ambitious, carbon reduction plans (net UK carbon account for 2050 to be 80% lower than in 1990 – which requires another 44% drop). The space which we have in the UK to plant trees cannot balance out the considerable amount of emissions we produce. So, we need to continue limiting our CO2 emitting factors like energy supply as much as possible! Re-forestation is an increasingly effective method of lowering carbon in the atmosphere though, where maturing trees only increase in their ability to sequester carbon! Re-forestation is also a particularly beautiful and natural method which everyone, humans and animals alike, can enjoy.

We need to make sure that the National Forest is not an isolated case and success. Supporting organisations like the Heart of England Forest charity (creating woodland across Warwickshire since 1996), by donating even one tree, is vital. Without more support re-forestation projects may no longer happen, with grant schemes for woodland projects decreasing in number and those which remain being ridiculously difficult to access. Globally, damaged woodland is not consistently being repaired or replaced, with a deficit of 6 billion trees each year. Even now, more forested areas are under threat from major infrastructure plans like airport expansions.

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Devastating deforestation still remains / Wikimedia Commons 

But, there is hope! In a technology advancing world, a faster and cheaper industrial-scale level of tree planting is possible! But how you ask? Drones. A small number of companies, namely BioCarbon Engineering from the UK backed by drone manufacturer Parrot, and Oregon start-up Droneseed, have begun to test drone technology for specific purpose of tree planting, as well as spraying fertilizer and herbicides for the latter. These drones can not only spread the seeds faster, but in more challenging and inaccessible locations = more trees!

Check out BioCarbon Engineering’s venture here!



If you’re interested in learning more about the future for global forests and the wooded battle against global warming, check out the World Economic Forum’s pages on Forestry

Love the developing uses of drones? Go check out our previous article on them by clicking on the hyperlink for drones above! 

Get involved in Twisted Strands. Let us know if you have an idea for a blog post, or if there is any topic you want to hear about!

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