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Ancient oaks at Crock Hill, Hampshire, cared for by the National Trust. Credit NT Images & John Miller

Professor Bateman is the principal researcher for NetZeroPlus, which will help plan the planting of 750,000 hectares of trees across the UK

Exeter academic warns of ‘funding issue’ over government’s ambitious tree planting plans

A senior Exeter academic has warned that the government will fail to meet its ambitious tree planting targets without “major and rapid changes” to how the scheme is financed and run.

In its bid to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the government plans to embark on “the biggest tree planting programme this country has ever seen”, with the aim of 30,000 hectares of trees planted per annum by 2025.

But in evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee ahead of the publication of its report Tree Planting, Professor Ian Bateman warned that the government’s ambitious target will require “joined-up governance” as well as “major and rapid changes in public financial support” if it is to be achieved.

Professor Bateman, who is Director of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP) and member of the Economics department at the University of Exeter Business School, said: “While the private sector can be incentivised to play a part, the last 50 years shows that it will not occur at the scale necessary without state aid.

“Ideally this would come directly from climate change budgets. However, some are sceptical that this will occur.”

Professor Bateman argued that to reach 30,000 hectares of tree planting per annum by 2025 a more “joined-up approach” will be needed, “for example by integrating this objective within the Defra Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme established under the Agriculture Bill”.

He added: “Without the level of incentive provided by such (or similar) support it is not obvious that such ambition is realistic.”

Asked why previous ambitions for increasing tree planting in England were not met and what lessons should be learned, Professor Bateman said that this too ultimately came down to money.

He explained: “The level of land use change required to attain net zero simply cannot be delivered by goodwill and even grant aided forestry cannot compete with subsidised agriculture for land across the UK.

“Landowners and farmers rely upon the income from their land to survive. With many farms already strapped for cash, forestry will have to pay its way if we are to deliver its potential contribution to net zero.

“Storage of greenhouse gases is a public good. Farmers cannot sell this good in the market. However, the timely arrival of the Public Money for Public Goods principle within the new Agriculture Bill provides the ability to switch funding away from the production targets of the EU Common Agricultural Policy towards delivery of greenhouse gas storage.”

Professor Bateman is the principal researcher for NetZeroPlus, a key project in a £31.5 million government-funded programme to assess greenhouse gas removal methods.

The project will help plan the planting across the UK of 750,000 hectares of trees – an area greater in size than Devon – by enabling decision-makers to identify the best species, best locations, and best forest management to maximise greenhouse gas absorption and other benefits of woodlands.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report underlined that new technologies including carbon capture and storage will be needed to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Professor Bateman argues that trees are the most cost effective way of removing carbon from the atmosphere, while delivering other benefits such as enhancing biodiversity and improving wellbeing.

Date: 6 April 2022

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