Before Coronavirus overtook all of our lives the Government were making major noises about greatly increasing the area of new tree planting each year. Indeed back at the last general election it seemed almost like an auction as to which political party could bid highest. The Committee on Climate Change have advocated planting 30,000 hectares of new woodland a year as part of a national solution to become carbon neutral by 2050 and this is the basis of current government thinking.
This sounds a lot, but in fact it is a level of new planting achieved as recently as the 1980s. Currently Scotland is achieving close to target, but England is way behind. Much of this relates to complex grant schemes, but also levels of funding. At present tree planting can be supported through the Countryside Stewardship scheme and also the Woodland Carbon Fund for schemes over 10 hectares. Countryside Stewardship normally requires a minimum of 3 hectares of planting but will support smaller schemes that are part of a wider farm agreement.
Looking ahead, ELMS will replace Countryside Stewardship in 2024, but the published detail remains very thin. ELMS will replace both Countryside Stewardship and also the Basic Payment Scheme, for which existing woodland area is not eligible.
Another potentially large source of income is selling carbon credits. All private and public organisations now have to report on their own performance and plans to help achieve this target. While the real goal is not to emit carbon in the first place, in the short and medium term offsetting emissions by supporting other schemes and projects such as planting trees is a growing sector.
Other organisations and companies often wish to offset their own emissions, by funding others to fix carbon in compensation, hence, for example the chance to offset airline flights. MyClimate will, arrange to offset a return flight from London to New York (economy class) for £42, offsetting 1.8 tonnes of emissions. In turn they have to pay for a project that either captures carbon or reduces net emissions. Shell Oil offer a similar drive carbon neutral service for their business fleet customers.
Now we have wrestled with our consciences on this one a bit, as the better solution is to not fly in the first place. However, it is a growing market and one that Government is encouraging to incentivise new planting and also encourage lower emissions. So, we have decided to embrace the change and seek to help promote more woodland creation.
The market leader for verifying and validating levels of carbon fixed in tree planting schemes is the Woodland Carbon Code, promoted by the Forestry Commission and using methodologies developed through Forest Research, and we have recently been registered as a project developer for the scheme. Planting schemes can have theoretical calculations undertaken, which take account of species and location, and also the rate of fixing over the lifetime of a new woodland. Carbon fixing is low in early years, reaches a peak around year and falls off again as the woodland matures. To qualify for the Woodland Carbon Code you have to pay for initial validation by an external organisation and also regular checks to ensure the new woodland is being properly maintained and achieving its expected targets.
This all comes at a cost and is perhaps currently only worth considering for larger schemes. For now we would be thinking in terms of schemes of 10 hectares or more, although you can work with other landowners and submit joint schemes to save on costs. A new woodland can fix around 400 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare, and carbon prices are currently trading at around £7-15 per tonne of CO2, so the potential financial rewards are high, up to £6,000 per hectare at current market rates. Most people expect this figure to increase as the drive to become carbon neutral increases and 2050 looms nearer. STOP PRESS: The Forestry Commission have just announced that their last auction achieved an average price of £24.11 per tonne (27th May 2020) – roughly double recent rates.
We have recently been working with the Canal and River Trust, which is looking at options to undertake tree planting on their own land in order to offset their own emissions. While the Trust will not sell any carbon credits the intention is to enhance the biodiversity on their estate, increase the amenity value for visitors to the canal and reduce their footprint on the planet all at the same time. For the Trust wetland creation and protecting upland peat bogs are also important considerations in the balance, and it has been good to be in at the beginning to help them design and deliver a practical scheme that takes full account of other valuable ecological habitats.
Indeed wetlands are also important for the carbon cycle, as the accretion of peat is In itself a very important method of fixing carbon. Taken further rebuilding organic matter in our productive agricultural land also has huge potential to help restore the balance and again is likely to feature in future ELMS farm management plans and funding packages.
But if you are considering a major woodland planting scheme do remember to take a look at the Woodland Carbon Code; the additional funding could make the difference to your scheme’s viability.