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Volume 810: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to balance (1) carbon sequestration, and (2) biodiversity, in their plans to plant 30,000 hectares of trees annually.

My Lords, trees are an essential part of our nation’s biodiversity, and existing native woodlands are recognised as priority habitats. Tree planting is a nature-based solution that can expand habitats and help to address the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. Through our £640 million nature for climate fund, we will ensure that trees are grown, selected, planted and managed appropriately to provide multiple benefits for the climate, nature, people and the economy in supporting a green recovery.

While the Government’s plans to increase tree planting are laudable, they must not be at the expense of destroying peatlands, which capture much more carbon than my beloved trees. More carbon is stored in our peatlands than in all the forests of France, Germany and the UK put together. Can the Minister give me an assurance that the Forestry Commission will neither be forced by government targets to plant upland peat bogs, which are our national equivalent of rainforests in terms of carbon capture, nor have to grant-aid private landowners to do so?

I can absolutely provide the noble Lord with that assurance. In recognition of the importance of peatlands, we are aligning our various strategies, including the England tree strategy and the peat strategy, and we hope that, combined, they will set out a long-term approach to fulfilling our international biodiversity commitments and 25-year environment plan, in addition to restoring and protecting our peatland and expanding tree cover. It is essential that we plant trees in the right place. Deep peatlands are absolutely not the right place for tree planting, and we recognise that.

My Lords, I refer to my non-financial interests in the Northumberland National Park as listed in the register. There we have seen the massively increased planting of Sitka spruce, aided by subsidies, to the detriment of biodiversity. In view of what the Minister said about priority habitats a minute ago, will the Forestry Commission and others be required to follow the 10 golden rules of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and not plant the wrong trees in the wrong places?

I can also provide the noble Baroness with the reassurance that she is looking for. Given that we will use public money to deliver much of the plan for trees that we have and that was in our manifesto, we want to achieve the biggest possible return for taxpayers. That means using those funds and the wider programme to deliver for biodiversity, people and climate change. Our strong default position will be for mixed native woodlands and, in some cases, facilitating the natural regeneration of land in the right places.

My Lords, President Biden has launched the Civilian Climate Corps, echoing Roosevelt’s programme after the economic slump of the great depression, which created thousands of public jobs, transformed the US natural infrastructure and planted 3 billion trees. Will the Government introduce a national nature service to tackle carbon, build bio- diversity and create green jobs?

I cannot make the guarantee that the noble Baroness asks for, but the Government’s combined intention to tackle the appalling biodiversity loss of the last few decades and to reverse the tree loss we have seen over a longer period will set us on track to turn the trajectory of decline around in the quickest possible time, as we committed to in our 25-year environment plan. The Prime Minister announced just a few months ago that we are committed to signing up alongside other countries to protect 30% of our land and 30% of our oceans by 2030—the end of this decade—and the funds have been set aside to enable us to do so.

My Lords, to plan to plant 30,000 hectares of trees annually is a massive task. Where will the land come from? Will it include moorland? Is my noble friend aware that many years ago, when tax advantages were open to tree planting, the Cabrach hills at the source of the River Deveron in Banffshire were planted incorrectly? The damage to the river system was severe and lasting. Who will advise Her Majesty’s Government on good practice?

My noble friend makes a really important point. It is a huge task, and we need to get it right. There have been many mistakes over recent decades, including the example he just cited. We need all new tree planting and natural regeneration to be done appropriately and in a way that maximises all the multiple benefits of trees and woodlands and avoids the mistakes of the past. The Forestry Commission, Natural England and the Environment Agency work collectively to advise both government generally and landowners specifically on individual planting proposals which align with regulatory best practice.

My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. This essential balance can be achieved only if the growers of these trees in less-afforested areas achieve a commercial return. However, that return will be dependent on producing carbon units at points in the future, and that is not guaranteed when factors largely outside of grower control, such as squirrel and deer damage, drought, disease and soil deficiency, could affect the trees and thereby carbon sequestration. Why would a grower take this gamble?

The financial incentives we will put forward as part of our England tree strategy are designed to ensure that it is in the economic interests of landowners big and small to join us in this huge national endeavour to plant 30,000 hectares of trees per year by 2025. But the noble Lord raises the problem of invasive species, citing grey squirrels, and he is right. The Government are committed to doing all we can to tackle this issue. We continue to fund research into the best possible mechanisms for tackling grey squirrels and other species, such as muntjacs, and it remains a priority issue for Defra.

Huge numbers of larch have been felled in recent years in the Lake District National Park to try to contain deadly fungal disease. What plans do the Government have to support the planting and, importantly, maintenance of native species to replace these lost trees, improve biodiversity in the park and preserve and create habitats where red squirrels can thrive?

As I have said, the default position and the Government’s priority when it comes to deploying the funds put aside for this programme will be in favour of mixed woodlands—either planted or as a result of natural colonisation—in the appropriate areas. We want that diversity back. In the case of some of these appalling tree diseases which threaten iconic species—ash dieback, for instance—we have specific programmes. We know that a large number of ash trees will become infected, but not all of them will die. We expect that 1% to 5% will show tolerance, so we are funding research into future breeding programmes of tolerant trees. We are conducting, I believe, the world’s largest screening trials and will plant the first of the tolerant trees later this year.

My Lords, a young plantation is an emitter of CO2 for the first few years so will not help in achieving a short-term target. How long does the Minister think it will take for net carbon reduction to occur?

The noble Lord is right that the value of trees to carbon sequestration does not begin immediately. It can take up to seven years, depending on the tree variety and the quality of the land. But our commitment to planting at least 30,000 hectares a year, or allowing the natural regeneration of up to 30,000 hectares a year, across the UK by 2025 is based on advice from the committee on climate change, which recommended that figure as a minimum to help us to reach our net-zero emissions target by 2050.

My Lords, the Woodland Trust has just cancelled an order for 22,000 trees from mainland GB for Northern Ireland, and it specifically said that it is because of the ban on British soil coming from GB to Northern Ireland—I repeat, the ban on British soil going from one part of the United Kingdom to another. Does the Minister understand just how devastating the protocol will be on the biodiversity of Northern Ireland woodlands?

The situation described by the noble Baroness makes no sense whatever, and she makes the point very clearly and powerfully. I will take her comments away and convey them to colleagues in my department and across government to see what—if anything—can be done to restore common sense to the situation that she describes.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed, and I regret that it has not been possible to reach all noble Lords on the list here in the Chamber or remotely.