Boris Johnson promised a revolutionary tree planting programme across the UK during the election, wooing those concerned about the environment to his party and undercutting big promises from his political rivals.
But just six months after the election it seems the promise was not worth the paper – indeed the tree that produced the paper – that it was written on.
Campaigners have today called for a ramping-up of efforts to plant new trees across the UK as new figures show planting lagging behind targets to tackle climate change.
Provisional official woodland statistics from Forest Research show 13,460 hectares (33,260 acres) of new planting across the UK in the year to March 2020, more than four-fifths (81 percent) of which took place in Scotland.
Planting, particularly in England, is well below where it needs to be to meet targets to plant trees to help absorb carbon emissions to curb climate change and boost natural habitat, environmental groups warned.
Johnson created a huge fanfare when he announced £640m to plant 30 million trees by 2025. He claimed there was “nothing more conservative than protecting our environment” and the scheme would “sit alongside our world leading commitment” to prevent climate breakdown.
The Labour opposition warned that the Tories had already failed to meet tree planting targets and accused the PM of making the announcement to “greenwash his atrocious environmental record.” The party was ridiculed for promising two billion trees would be planted.
Campaigners now argue that creating and taking care of woodland habitat should be part of a “green recovery” from the pandemic.
The UK Government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change has called for the creation of 30,000 hectares of new woodland a year in the UK to help meet targets to cut overall emissions to net zero by mid century. This would see woodland cover increase from 13 percent of the UK’s total land area now to 17 percent in 2050.
The government has committed to planting 30,000 hectares of new woods in England by 2025 as part of meeting the committee’s overall targets, requiring around 5,000 hectares of trees to go in the ground each year.
But the figures for 2019-20 show just 2,330 hectares of new forest was planted in England.
Darren Moorcroft, chief executive of the Woodland Trust, said: “Despite huge interest in trees and woods, these new statistics show we are a long way from where we need to be.”
He said the government’s planned England Tree Strategy needed to deliver a “bold vision” for trees and woods.
“That means not just more trees in the ground, but planning as part of the landscape, so they deliver for carbon, nature and people, with firm quality not just quantity targets.”
And he urged: “We must also do far more to look after the trees and woods we already have, restoring and protecting our precious ancient woodlands and stopping the risk of imported tree disease by sourcing and growing the trees we plant in this country.
“Action to rebuild our economy and society after the coronavirus epidemic must also invest for the long term in our precious natural environment.
“Protecting, restoring and expanding native tree cover – with all the social, economic and environmental benefits that will bring – belongs at the heart of any ‘green recovery’ worthy of the name.”
Emi Murphy, trees campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Our Government talks the talk on fighting climate breakdown, but these figures show that planting of new trees, and replacing those felled, in England remains at an historic low.
“During the coronavirus lockdown it’s become clearer than ever how vital access to trees and green spaces is for people’s health and wellbeing, so for the sake of people as well as planet we need to see a huge improvement in how quickly trees are being planted, with the right trees in the right place. “
Friends of the Earth is calling on the government to double UK tree cover, and for it to use its forthcoming England Tree Strategy to fix the climate emergency and make more space for nature.
The figures also show that more than half (56 percent) of the new planting was conifers, which are mostly non-native plantations, and that half (51 percent) of the UK’s overall woodland area is conifers.
An Environment Department (Defra) spokesman said: “Tree planting remains at the heart of our ambitious environmental programme which is why we have committed to increase tree planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025 – working closely with devolved administrations, communities and landowners to make this happen.
“We are proud of our record on woodland creation but we know there is still more we can do.
“We have recently announced a £640 million Nature for Climate Fund to support increased tree planting and we will shortly be consulting on an England Tree Strategy, outlining potential policies to expand and improve our woodlands.”
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. Emily Beament is the PA environment correspondent.