Guest blog: Climate change plan update and Scottish woodland creation: getting the balance right

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Dr Anastasia Yang is a Senior Researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Centre for Sustainable Forests and Landscapes. Between November 2019 and September 2020, Annie produced a SPICe research briefing providing a critical review of Scottish forestry policy in meeting multiple objectives. As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or the Scottish Parliament.

Scotland’s Climate Change Plan Update (CCPu) was published in December 2020. It updates 2018’s Climate Change Plan to factor in revised and more ambitious targets to end Scotland’s contribution to climate change by 2045, as set out in the  Climate Change (Emissions Reductions Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019. Two SPICe briefings provide further background information and summarise the key sectors featured in the CCPu.

The CCPu focuses on a move towards a ‘green recovery’ from COVID-19. It aims to achieve a ‘just transition’ to meet, amongst other priorities, twin goals of tackling the climate emergency and biodiversity loss.

Woodland creation, and improved management, have a key role in addressing these twin crises. Yet it is more complicated than just planting trees. A recent SPICe briefing on the multiple roles of Scottish woodlands highlights this complexity, and this blog explores this further in the context of the recently published CCPu.

Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-2029 outlines long-term Scottish Government policy on forestry, and recognises the multiple roles of woodlands. It outlines three core objectives, which focus on economic, environmental, and social aspects. The strategy further provides targets to increase woodland cover to 21% of the total area of Scotland by 2032, in line with climate change-related forestry targets.

It was recently announced by Scottish Forestry (formerly Forestry Commission Scotland) that the tree planting targets for 2021 are on track this year with 13,000 hectares of new woodland applications approved.

Yet, area-based targets can be misleading. A recent study explained why area-based targets for establishing woodlands can limit or underplay climate change mitigation benefits, leading to assumptions about net carbon reductions. In reality, the authors highlight, net emissions are site specific, depending on the climate and soil characteristics, the type of species planted, and management applied. Likewise, planting trees is not always the answer, especially where soils are already carbon rich, such as peatlands.

The need for a considered approach to forestry which achieves multiple benefits has given rise to the phrase ‘right tree in the right place’ – paying heed to the suitability of different types of trees and woodlands for different locations. Scottish Forestry has provided guidance on this, reflecting a mainstream understanding of this in the public sector.

How the balance between goals, including emissions reductions, are achieved depends on what’s being planted, where, and by whom. How land use decisions are made will further determine how those compromises play out.

CCPu under review: balancing woodland creation for carbon with other wider benefits?

The CCPu has been scrutinised in detail by the Parliament between January and March 2021.

The CCPu sets out policies and proposals on a sector-by-sector basis, yet it aims to align actions for climate change.  A ‘coordinated approach’ also features as part of the update, proposing a ‘cross-cutting, systems-based approach’ to harness opportunities for society.

The biodiversity crisis is acknowledged – noting that climate change is a major driver of biodiversity loss. Therefore nature-based solutions are required – where nature is used to help us absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in trees, soils, or other natural elements –  to: “enable climate change mitigation, resilience, adaptation and positive social change, providing benefits for both people and biodiversity.”

Woodland creation is proposed as one of these nature-based solutions, and with peatland restoration, is recognised as a key pillar within the CCPu chapter on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Scottish Government’s Land Use Strategy further emphasises that maximising the benefits that nature provides requires a coordinated action at the landscape scale. Regional land use partnerships, which feature in the CCPu, are a potential mechanism to deliver on a range of benefits. The aim is for regional stakeholders to work together to meet priorities and identify where resources can have the most positive climate impact.

Stakeholder feedback on the CCPu

A number of views submitted by stakeholders to the Scottish Parliament committees’ call for views on the CCPu linked woodlands to the question of wider benefits. Responses reflect a view that the update does not go far enough to secure wider benefits around woodlands.

A response from Woodland Trust Scotland highlights that: “a step change in ambition is needed for native woodland creation, and sustainable management of native woodlands if the Scottish Government is serious about addressing the climate and nature emergency together.” Native woodlands are referred to only once in the update with regard to actions taken by Forestry and Land Scotland (the public body set up in 2019 to manage Scotland’s national forest estate).

As a result, a number of environmental NGOs called for a commitment to a 50:50 split of native and non-native species for woodland creation, as part of their written submissions to the call for views. It was also noted that focus should also be on woodland restoration, getting existing woodlands into better condition. The soils and trees in ancient woods are also important carbon stores.

Furthermore, looking at management of existing woodlands was also raised by Confor (the Confederation of Forest Industries) in a meeting of the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) Committee, where MSPs questioned stakeholders regarding their views on the plan. Confor, whilst supportive of plans for expansion, highlighted that “there is also a real need to look at our existing woodland resource and ask how we can maximise its potential”, including “in thinking about carbon, to look at how we protect and manage existing woodlands with regard to their ability to produce high-quality wood”, creating wider benefits for rural employment, and help decarbonise construction.

Stakeholders also highlighted that deer management was absent from the CCPu. Speaking to the REC Committee, NatureScot (formerly SNH) noted that this was surprising, “in terms of woodland expansion and peatland restoration…the interaction with grazing animals is pretty fundamental to success.”

The wider benefits of community involvement were also seen to be limited in the CCPu.

The Community Woodlands Association stated that the CCPu had limited recognition of the role of community action, public engagement and behaviour change. They recommended that communities are considered as ‘drivers of change rather than barriers to change’. Community Land Scotland also felt that the community dimension of these benefits should come to the fore. They recommended that land reform needs to also be considered with regards to how public benefits are delivered.

In summary many of the views shared on the CCPu highlight that wider benefits for woodland creation are not clearly addressed.

The realties and challenges of achieving this nature-based solution are not explored in the document, principally as the policies and proposals for woodland creation continue to deal primarily with per-hectare targets. This implies that woodland creation automatically delivers wider benefits, when in reality the picture is much more nuanced.

Looking to multiple benefits

In achieving a ‘green recovery for Scotland’ and in mitigating climate change, woodlands undoubtedly have a strong role to play. Recommendations from both the Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) and Environment Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committees suggest that the CCPu would benefit from recognising wider benefits to ensure other outcomes are not side-lined and that the proposed ‘coordinated approach’ is well-evidenced within the land use sector proposals.

The REC Committee, whilst welcoming the ambition in the CCPu to increase forestry expansion called on the Scottish Government to “evidence a nuanced approach to forestry in the final CCPu in addition to the overall planting target”, including a commitment to ; a 50:50 split for native woodland; highlight the role of mixed woodland; and to ensuring that new research findings are translated into policy. The Committee also called on the Scottish Government to, among other things:

  • Outline plans and targets for the regeneration of Scotland’s ancient woodlands; and, more generally, for the good management of Scotland’s existing woodlands, with appropriate support and incentives as part of rural and forestry policies.
  • Improve grant schemes for agro-forestry and to review the woodland carbon code to give appropriate recognition to woodland on farms, to improve integration between forestry and farming.
  • Encourage greater use of domestically grown timber in the Scottish construction sector.

Both the REC and ECCLR Committees also highlighted the omission of deer management, as part of the management of forestry and landscapes. Furthermore, the ECCLR Committee calls for an expanded focus on integrated land use in the CCPu by considering more holistic, landscape scale restoration projects.

Finally, to achieve a coordinated approach as intended the CCPu, the mechanisms need to be there to drive it. For this, Scotland’s Land Use Strategy with Regional Land Use Partnerships provide future opportunities, with both the RECC and ECCLR Committees calling for faster roll-out of regional land use partnerships, and greater clarity  on the tools and resources available to them to help secure and balance wider benefits and priorities.

By Dr Anastasia Yang

Image credit: Dr Anastasia Yang