One of the consequences of the massive wave of media attention on the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow has been the high profile of the role of trees and woods in contributing to carbon sequestration and to climate change mitgation measures.
Weeks of almost continuous media headlines about trees, forests and carbon created a heady and almost unreal sense for me that the importance of trees in climate mitigation had truly reached the top of the list of mainstream political issues of concern. To some extent we’ve been here before when ash dieback became a matter of national crisis in 2012, but COP26 created a whole new level of news domination. While it is extremely rare (except in a global pandemic) for any topic to dominate the headlines for sustained periods of time, this level of coverage signals a new era of enhanced awareness of the importance of trees in our battle to contain the worst impacts of climate change.
It is therefore hardly surprising and quite understandable that many recent proposals to cut down trees have been met with media headlines and that a mood of genuine public unease appears to be growing about the idea of removing any trees in a time of climate crisis. How can trees be for the chop at a time of COP 26?
Some media stories may of course be fully justified in exposing what can be construed as double standards. On day 2 of the Glasgow Conference LBC’s Nick Ferrari gave George Eustice a grilling about the ongoing felling of ancient woodland to make way for HS2. At best this was poor communications planning and at worst a clear case of political misjudgement. Similarly, a group of Glasgow residents protested at “hypocritical” plans to cut down trees, minutes away from the COP 26 conference centre, to make way for a new development.
But such intense media scrutiny is starting to create real challenges for the forest and woodland sector, a double edged sword or axe perhaps. In Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham, a clear fell of Corsican pine was headlined as “outrage as hundreds of trees chopped down 'without warning' during COP26 climate conference week”. While the timing of the operation could have been more considered and the difference between applications appearing on the public register and targeted consultation of local communities better understood, this case shows how public reaction can be swift, vociferous, and not always based on a full understanding of the reasons for the felling taking place.
Public opposition to felling of trees for legitimate forest management reasons such as habitat management, public safety or sustainable timber production is not a new phenomenon as I know only too well from my long experience at the Woodland Trust. It takes concerted time and patience to explain the reasoning behind what appears to be a drastic and often unsightly operation, though it is heartening that considered explanations have been known to win over objectors.
Photo: H Allison
But the current COP - fuelled focus on trees will only heighten and amplify public concerns over tree felling and harvesting. Consequently all of us need to work extra hard on our messages to explain that cutting down a tree in the UK isn’t necessarily a contribution to the climate crisis and the equivalent of Amazonian deforestation. The ability of trees to embed carbon for decades after harvesting, while new trees can be grown which continue to sequester more carbon is after all nothing short of amazing.
Using timber as a substitute for far more carbon intensive products like steel and concrete may seem a no brainer to us in the forests and woodland sector but not to everyone. The media have a key role to play here and step up to help explain some of the basics. The jaw dropping assertion of TalkRadio’s presenter Mike Graham in this clip that ‘you can grow concrete’ when interviewing a bemused Insulate Britain campaigner who happened to be a carpenter is laughable, if it weren’t so jaw-droppingly ignorant.
I can therefore entirely understand why there are rumblings in the forest sector about what all of this will mean in terms of time and energy to explain our work and overcome misconceptions about why we need to cut down trees. But we cannot overturn silvicultural illiteracy overnight.
Our collective New Year’s resolution must therefore be to communicate, consult and explain the work we all do to protect, manage and expand the UK’s woodland cover.