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Trees and Planetary Health: Tree Planting needs to be underpinned by behavioural change and political support.

On 13th December 2019 I marked a milestone in my own small attempt to restore a beautiful part of the Herefordshire countryside in which I live; I managed to plant my 5,000th native deciduous tree, following seven years of tree planting. That day also marked the day in which Boris Johnson won a large Conservative majority in the UK parliament. Never before has tree planting been given such prominence within an election, with the Boris Johnson’s government committing to plant 30 million trees per year from 2020 – 2025. Despite this welcome news, there is a danger that all tree planting may do, is ease our conscience and prevent use from tackling the real drivers behind the destructive nature of land-use change both in the UK and overseas. Climate Change and unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss will require more systemic solutions which will require more unpalatable solutions. This includes the need to change our behaviours and for governments to take much more of a strategic, longer term vision and strategy over how we use humanities most important assets, our land.  

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A small area of woodland I planted 3 years ago

Seven years ago we made a conscious decision to take out a larger mortgage and buy some land; 25 acres to be precise, situated in the rolling countryside of Herefordshire. We had always wanted to manage a small plot of land and yearned to reconnect my head with my heart and hands. The ability to reconnect with the land also gave me a great opportunity to put some of my values into practice; the need to move towards more regenerative agricultural practices that restore the natural world, for example. In 2013 we set about a plan which included planting a small a fruit and nut orchard using traditional and historical varieties and the planting five acres of new native woodland.

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Yellow Rattle is an important component of flower rich meadows

Our plans for the future include putting half of our land down to native woodland (a mixture of Oak, Alder, hazel, Ash, Maple, Chestnut etc) and use the rest as permanent flower-rich pasture with the aim of improving biodiversity. Already we have recorded over 30 varieties of flowers such as yellow rattle, Early purple orchids, Birds-foot Trefoil, Yarrow and Oxeye Daisies. There is nothing more satisfying the act of tree planting – the feeling and sense that we can leave our land in a better condition than when we inherited it.

There is no doubt that planting trees is one of the biggest and most cost-effective ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere to tackle the climate crisis. It can also restore woodland habitats that have progressively been felled over millennia – A meagre 12% of the UK is covered in forest (a significant proportion of which is now dominated by conifer plantations, which are not hugely beneficial for most wildlife). Research published in Science Magazine  earlier this year estimated that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions from human activities that remain in the atmosphere today, although this would take a tree planting programme, alongside long term tree aftercare and protection measures, equivalent to the size of China and the US combined.

Whilst I am a strong advocate for tree planting, we won’t be able to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis by single solution interventions. In fact, there is a real danger that these interventions could undermine the need to tackle the divers of land-use change and deforestation which needs to be the key global priority. How can we ensure a tree planted by a politician or celebrity in the UK does not mean that a tree in the Amazon, which stores much more carbon and is beneficial to more wildlife, is not cut down as a result? My fear is that tree planting can be used as an excuse for inaction in other areas. Yes, its eases my and  our conscience and gives us a certain warm glow that we are doing our bit for the planet, but in the end it could mean we fail to address the real divers behind land-use change and deforestation which would require much more difficult behavioural and political changes; the need to change what we eat or a more comprehensive  land-use vision and strategy or eat less but better meats for example?

A systematic review of peer-reviewed journal articles assessing the GHG emissions and land use demand of in total 49 dietary scenarios highlighted that dietary change, with an emphasis on more plants in diets, particularly in regions of the world where meat consumption is high would play a more significant role in reaching environmental goals, with up to 50% potential to reduce GHG emissions and land use demand associated with the average current diet. The World Resources Institute has estimated that the area of land needed for agriculture could shrink by 800 million hectares and be liberated for reforestation, through a combination of measures including reducing food waste and a move towards more plant-based diets.

In addition to driving addressing drivers such as dietary change, governments also need a long-term vision and strategy for land. Land is a finite resource and is increasingly under pressure from a plethora of competing demands, particularly in countries such as the UK, where human population densities are particularly high.  A more strategic approach to land-use planning is vital in order to gives us the ability to plan and prioritise where and how our lands are used – for the growing of foods, production of timber, generating energy, mineral extraction, recreation and for wildlife. Trees have the ability to provide for all these competing needs.

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A small traditional orchard planted 5 years ago

There was a famous Chinese proverb that said ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’ Whilst I would agree and will continue to do my own small bit to plant trees, we must not ignore the need for change in our own behaviours and for politicians to tackle the causes of unsustainable land-use change and deforestation.