Global reforestation and sustainable farming – 200 million trees for Wales?

By Rob Squires

Scottish agroforestry

Agroforestry (main species silvopastoral system) at Bolfracks Estate, Upper Farrochil, by Aberfeldy. Forestry Grant Scheme. Photographer – Matt Cartney. Crown Copyright.

A recent Guardian article covered a report proposing the planting of one trillion trees over the next 50-100 years, to mop up two-thirds of global carbon emissions. The Global Tree Restoration Potential excludes arable and urban areas from its calculations, but includes grazing land, on which the researchers say trees can benefit sheep and cattle. As the most effective projects cost as little as 30 US cents a tree, the total price could be £240bn.

This may sound like a lot of money, but on the same day as the Guardian article came out I received a petition from Positive Money (who campaign for monetary reform) demanding the Bank of England divest from fossil fuels. It stated: “Since 2009 the Bank of England has created £445bn of new money, in the process termed ‘quantitative easing’.” Reading this put the situation into sharp context for me. If the banks are “too big to fail”, such that £445bn can be whipped up using the government’s “magic money tree”,  then surely the planet is big enough to merit a mere £240bn to put the brakes on the climate crisis? What is more, this would be £240bn globally, so Wales’ share of this would be a drop in the ocean, compared with the bill for bailing out the bankers.

I recently attended a meeting about the Sustainable Farming and our Land, the Welsh Government’s consultation on support to farmers after Brexit. This got me thinking about the one trillion trees and what it would take for Wales to play its part in this, and I was prompted to do some back-of-an-envelope number crunching.

Let us assume 200 million trees[i] would need planting in Wales, for us to achieve our share of one trillion. Using the same planting densities as the report, this will require around 285,000 hectares (ha). Wales actually contains about 1,500,000 ha of grazing land, which is roughly three-quarters of the total land mass of the country. If most of the trees were planted on this land, it would take up about 20% of it. The average holding size in Wales is about 48 ha, and on that basis an average of 6,720 trees will need planting per holding, at a rate of 140 trees per ha.

If planting 200m trees sounds like a tall order, then serendipitously, in the few days I have been writing this blog, Ethiopia has broken a world record by planting an incredible 350m trees in just one day! Their plan is to plant four billion to counter deforestation, and climate change. The surface area of Ethiopia is 53 times greater than that of Wales, so this target equates to pretty much the same amount of additional trees per hectare as Wales.

Tree planting on this scale will have a dramatic impact, both on the natural world and on the livelihoods of farmers and smallholders. For the environment the benefits of reforestation are obvious, providing habitat, increased biodiversity and ecological resilience. The challenge however, is to develop ways in which the rural economy can adapt to such changes, building food security and ensuring financial benefits.

One important aspect of the government’s proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme is that it plans to reward farmers with subsidies for environmental outcomes, such as biodiversity, air quality, and water quality, all of which tree planting can contribute to. Since currently an average of 80% of Welsh farmers’ income comes from the direct payments they receive through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the new environmental rewards are going to be crucial to prevent many farmers from going out of business after Brexit. Tree planting offers much more potential for farmers though, than simply obtaining a replacement subsidy.

The Soil Association’s new Agroforestry Handbook explains the potential of different types of tree farming systems, with advice on implementation, case studies, and market opportunities. The economic case for agroforestry can be considered in three main ways: enhanced ecosystem services; enhanced agricultural outputs; and direct tree outputs.

  • The enhanced ecosystem services that can be achieved are perfect for the Sustainable Farming Scheme, and include carbon capture, biodiversity, rain water retention and soil improvement.
  • A good case study for enhanced agricultural outputs is Welsh sheep and beef farmer Jonathan Francis, who was unable to turn stock into some fields because of rainfall and lack of shelter. With support from Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales) he planted 15,000 trees on his 113 ha farm. He is creating shelter for his stock, and reducing water logging and erosion of the soil, thus reclaiming the land and enhancing his conventional outputs. Meanwhile Pembrokeshire farmer Alex Heffron who has written about silvopasture (the grazing of livestock amongst trees) is applying for funding from Coed Cadw to plant tens of thousands of trees on his land.
  • In terms of direct tree outputs, the Agroforestry Handbook lists a range of potential market opportunities, including timber, fuel, food, leisure, and carbon markets. As well as the direct sales, farmers could choose to reduce costs by utilising their own timber for things like fencing, farm buildings, and fuel.

Within the Sustainable Farming Scheme, in addition to a regular income stream from environmental rewards, farmers will be able to access a wider range of business support such as advice, capital investment and skills development. With such a framework in place, it is feasible that land use can be reformed such that Wales makes a fair contribution to global reforestation, whilst supporting land managers to release themselves from the worst of global market forces, moving  away from a heavily subsidised and precarious place, to a new position of much improved community resilience.

Rob Squires is a web developer and food activist in Aberystwyth.

Both images: agroforestry in Scotland, by Matt Cartney, under a Creative Commons licence

[i]. Global population is currently about 7.72bn (growing by over 200,000 / day!), and the population of Wales is around 3.2m, or 0.041%. Based on this percentage, Wales would be required to plant around 410m trees in order to meet its commitment to 1tn trees. This however, is a lot of trees for a relatively small country.

Another way to break it down might be by surface area. The land mass of the entire world is 149 million km², whist the area of Wales is 20,735 km², which is about 0.014%. Based on this percentage, Wales would be required to plant about 140m trees in order to fulfil it’s commitment, which seems more do-able.

There are other ways of thinking about this, such as basing the size of Wales’ commitment on the country’s GDP, or on its carbon footprint. If either of these measures were used, then the Welsh commitment to 1tn trees would no doubt be a lot higher than either of the two figures above. To keep things simple though I have chosen a figure of 200m trees, somewhere in between the estimates formed from population and land mass.

3 thoughts on “Global reforestation and sustainable farming – 200 million trees for Wales?

  1. John Green says:

    Rob, just read your article on agroforestry for Wales, have you ever thought of arranging cloud funding that rents land from farmers to plant trees. Lots of the public are now so worried about Climate Change they would support some form of co-operative venture to do this.
    Some airlines are now offering ways in which to pay for the carbon created during your flight.
    I think this would work in Wales as we have a history of agricultural co-operation.

    Like

  2. finnweddle says:

    Love your thoughts, but question the numbers! In theory, 200m is a low target and could easily bested I think. But, in practice, it’s a start that needs to be made.

    Thank you for this article and for the many interesting thoughts on this website, great to see agroforestry being properly investigated in all parts of the country now. Just need to get a move on and establish the systems we know will improve ecological health manifold!

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    • Rob Squires says:

      Hi Finnweddle, thanks for the feedback. 200M is a bit of an arbitrary figure to be honest. The article started of as a number crunching exercise – I was interested to get a sense of the scale of the impact, on the landscape, and land owners, that would be required for Wales to play it’s part in a trillion trees. You could probably write a thesis on what would be a fare contribution to this target for Wales. This could be based on population, or land area, or GDP, or the country’s historic contribution to CO2 levels. If we’re basing this on population or land mass then I think the 200M figure is ballpark. If we were to base this figure on GDP or historic contribution to CO2, then I suspect that the figure is woefully low.

      Like

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