Reforesting the UK is the best way to reduce carbon emissions and meet the Paris climate agreement targets, according to a radical new report.
Launched yesterday (11 April) at the Grow Green conference, in London, the findings from a report by Dr Helen Harwatt of Harvard Law School suggested the UK could turn to rapidly ramping up reforestation programmes and convert pasture land to forest to help meet climate targets.
The Grow Green conference looked at the opportunities for farmers as a result of the huge interest in plant-based findings, but Harwatt’s sobering and introductory keynote focused on the need for agriculture to adapt as a critical tool in climate change mitigation.
“Global emissions need to peak by 2020 and then reduce. Carbon dioxide removal can help this, and the best way of doing this is simply growing more trees,” she said. “The UK should use large areas of land to rapidly ramp up reforestation. Agriculture uses 70 per cent of the land in the UK.”
The report looked at land use in the UK and mapped different scenarios of converting land currently used as pasture, and land used to grow crops for animal feed, into forest. Over half (55 per cent) of the UK’s crop land is used for animal feed, while 48 per cent of all land in the UK is used for animal agriculture, according to the report.
Harwatt said that reforestation would yield new benefits for land-owners, but noted that the report modelled a ‘deep transformation’ of UK agriculture, and given the need for radical action, it was done without taking a business as usual approach.
Simon Billing of the Eating Better Alliance, speaking in a later session, said Harwatt’s report “reminds us of the scale of the challenge and it terrifies me”. “This is a political challenge and it’s much bigger than diet, it’s about climate change. Very people understand the link there – in the US, you get people saying ‘don’t touch my burger’.”
Billing referred to the split between vegans and farmers as reported in the media, calling it “ridiculous”. “I think there is a lot of common ground. We need to talk about diversity [in diets and farming]. It’s about framing what we’re trying to do.”
Echoing the importance of trees in climate strategy, Guy Shrubsole, of Friends of the Earth, said the campaign NGO is launching a campaign to double the UK’s tree cover. “We’re one of the most de-natured countries in Europe, where the average woodland cover is 35 per cent. In the UK, it’s 13 per cent, so doubling that would still mean we were below average.”
Several speakers warned that farmers need to be central to any new land use strategy, with sessions focusing on the potential for pulse and other crop protein production in the UK to capitalise on the boom in plant-based eating.
A representative from pea and bean farmers’ association, PGRO, Roger Vickers, warned that: “You’ve got to demonstrate how farmers can make a living from this new world.”
Around 700,000 tonnes of peas and beans are produced annually by farmers in the UK, he said, with most of that not reaching the quality needed for human consumption. “We need research into how we can improve the quality and agronomy of peas and bean production,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about growing something new, why not grow what we already produce, but grow it better.”