Carbon into Trees


The BBC report that the Forestry Commission want to afforest 4% of the UK. And thereby get us 10% of the way towards our 80% emissions reduction target. Their wording is slightly odd, but see paragraph 12:

It is hoped the latest plan would absorb 10% of the UK’s target of slashing its emissions of greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050.

Alarm bells ringing. 1 million hectares (4% of the UK land) can sequester 8% (10% of an 80% emissions reduction) of the UK’s current CO2 emissions? No. My earlier article on coppicing willow suggests that an optimistic estimate for sequestration is 18 tonnes CO2 per hectare. So with 4% of the UK land, we could sequester 18 million tonnes, or about 3% of our (600 million tonnes of) emissions. I think my 3% figure is a really top end estimate. It’s not like willow grows particularly well in this country (but it is one of the best crops for sequestration) and with 4% of the UK covered, we may have to afforest some sub-optimal sites; short rotation coppicing is also different from growing mature forest, but I have a hard time believing that growing mature forest pulls down more carbon (yeah yeah, soil, nitrogen).

So where do the Forestry Commission get 8% from? I have no idea. And as usual the clueless journalists at the BBC fail to use the power of hyperlinking (welcome to the 1990′s) and they don’t have a link to the Forestry Commission research. Or even their press release (I suppose that would let everyone know they copied their homework).

Oh wait, here’s the first paragraph of the Forestry Commision press release: (ewgh Lotus Notes)

If an extra four per cent of the United Kingdom’s land were planted with new woodland over the next 40 years, it could be locking up ten per cent of the nation’s predicted greenhouse gas emissions by the 2050s.

Oh. So they mean 10% of our 2050 emissions. Which, as you know, are going to be 80% less than our current emissions. So 10% of 20% of our current emissions. Or 2%. Yeah, I buy that (just about, but at least it’s biologically plausible).

So the BBC mangled the press release. Does the BBC version seem very unclear to anyone else?

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9 Responses to “Carbon into Trees”

  1. Nick Barnes Says:

    Jesus wept. We are going to make the world uninhabitable because policy-makers and journalists are innumerate.

  2. Gareth Rees Says:

    It’s still a good idea, though, even if the PR is rubbish.

  3. Nick Barnes Says:

    Mature forests don’t sequester a damn thing, net (*), unless you continually harvest the mature trees and re-plant. So where are we going to put all the timber? Biofuel? Bio-char sequestration?
    (*) some exceptions.

  4. Peter Jackson Says:

    Yes, it seems woolly to me too, but the issue is complex. It does at least convey the sense that more trees would be a good thing for multiple reasons.

    It would be good if people understood the difference between sequestration and reducing emissions.

    My concern would be if the government used these numbers to avoid making the disruptive changes for emission reduction needed elsewhere, but at least the proportions involved here are relatively small.

  5. drj11 Says:

    I should add that I have no problem with journalists “copying their homework” (in other words, mincing a pressing release a bit and then republishing it). I just wish they were more honest about it.

  6. James Brooks Says:

    The idea isn’t a bad one; plant more trees. It will sequester some carbon, it could provide a rich habitat, it can help soil erosion and flooding.

    That said the Forestry Commission press release looks misleading. And the BBC should have done better at finding out what they meant. It is disgraceful how the media seem to have such a poor grasp of science. I don’t know whether it is because they don’t have the time to carry of some calculations to verify the work; that they don’t know how to; or that they just don’t consider it an issue. I think it is a real problem with almost all traditional media in the UK.

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