Somerset’s ambitious plan: carbon net zero by 2030

Photo by Pedro Kümmel on Unsplash
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The UK is committed to being carbon net zero by 2050; however, Somerset’s councils have declared they will work towards the same target 20 years earlier. So what is the scale of the challenge in Somerset and what part can we play, as a community, in reaching this ambitious goal?

In 2019 all five of Somerset’s councils declared a climate emergency, agreeing to “work together to produce a joint climate emergency strategy.” According to the Climate Emergency Framework, compiled collaboratively between all five, the goal is carbon net zero by 2030. This target is encouragingly ambitious, and will only be possible if we simultaneously cut emissions and sequester carbon dioxide from the environment – in other words, we need to plant trees on a massive scale.

So, just how does the ancient county of Somerset measure up when it comes to trees? What is our tree coverage like at the moment? Thankfully, Forest Research and Trees for Cities have been busy mapping the nation’s tree canopy over the last couple of years. Their work shows that 15.6 per cent of Somerset is covered by tree canopy (the average for the whole of England is 15.9 per cent). However, canopy cover varies across Somerset: South Somerset, for example, only registers a paltry 4 per cent. The Somerset Climate Emergency Framework document frames the debate well, describing how Somerset’s total woodland canopy offsets only one quarter of the CO2 (carbon dioxide) emitted by the whole county.

Fortunately, work has already begun to improve Somerset’s bleak outlook. In 2019, Somerset County Council, along with Somerset West and Taunton District Council, Cheddon Fitzpaine and West Monkton Parish Councils, began planting the Somerset Wood. This will eventually comprise 11,281 broadleaf trees by 2021 (11,281 to commemorate every man and woman who perished in WWI and who is listed in The Somerset Book of Honour). To boost tree planting, South Somerset District Council (SSDC) distributed 3,000 free tree whips across 61 parishes in February 2020.

Of course, planting the right trees in the right places is very important. There is a risk that a ‘plant-trees-at-all-costs’ mentality could result in poor outcomes for the environment, such as destroying wildflower biodiversity or releasing carbon from peatland. On this front, the Mendip Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Unit has produced a guide to assist landowners in making sure tree planting is carried out sensitively. Reimagining the Levels has done exceptional work in making the case for planting the best trees to help manage the flood risk on the Somerset Levels. Somerset Climate Action Network (Somerset CAN) has proved to be a real mover and shaker: it has been instrumental in helping Somerset’s five councils run county-wide consultations on climate change, and is working in partnership with all the councils as they formulate policy. All of these groups will no doubt prove formidable allies as Somerset works towards its aspiration of carbon net zero by 2030.

At a national level, the target of carbon net zero by 2050 is a legacy of former Prime Minister Theresa May. According to a policy paper from the Woodland Trust (Emergency Tree Plan for the UK), we need to boost our national tree canopy to a minimum of 19 per cent if we are to stand any chance of achieving this goal. The UK-based independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) calculates that this increase means planting 30,000 hectares(ha) of new woodland, or 90-120 million new trees. It’s this 30,000ha figure that Somerset’s own Rebecca Pow has often quoted in response to questions about tree planting.

According to Pow – the member of parliament for Taunton Deane, and Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – this target will be delivered through a new Tree Strategy, on which the government has launched a consultation. The details of this strategy are thin on the ground, but Pow says it will deliver a so-called ‘Nature for Climate Fund’ to the tune of £640m.

In the here and now, however, the Woodland Carbon Code (WCC) has generated positive news and impressive results. The WCC initiative essentially commodifies the CO2 that newly planted trees are projected to sequester over their lifetime. It all sounds rather complicated, but essentially it enables environmentally-conscious companies to offset their carbon footprint by paying landowners to plant trees.

The adoption of the WCC has resulted in considerable private investment in tree planting across the UK, particularly in Scotland. The latest figures indicate that the total number of trees planted in the UK under the WCC will remove 4.7million tonnes of CO2 from the environment over the next hundred years. What’s more, over the course of 2019-20, 13,000 hectares of new woodland were planted under the WCC.

So, we’re on the right track, right? Well, yes; 13,000ha of new woodland is a good stride towards the CCC’s 30,000ha target, offering some hope that this goal is realistic.

However, government-backed tree planting initiatives are not new. Successive governments have, for some time, recognised the need to coordinate and fund nationwide tree planting projects. The Countryside Stewardship Scheme (which has existed in various guises since 1991) has sporadically focused on incentivising landowners to create new woodland. Despite these efforts, the UK’s tree-canopy-to- land-area ratio is incredibly low in comparison to international trends. France’s tree canopy covers 31 per cent of its land area; Germany’s covers 33 per cent; Spain’s covers 37 per cent. The UK’s tree canopy covers a measly 13 per cent of its land area.

As we leave the European Union, the government is looking to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with its own version: the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. Under the proposals, landowners will be paid to plant trees and hedgerows and there is, it’s argued, a real opportunity to put environmentalism and action on climate change at the heart of our agricultural policy.

However, the ELM scheme is currently only at the consultation stage, with the national pilot due to roll out in 2021. The consultation has been delayed due to coronavirus and it looks likely that the pilot will also be late. Worryingly, the consultation on the ELM scheme is beginning to raise some red flags. It’s all well and good incentivising farmers to plant trees, but this shouldn’t come at the cost of food production and security:

If the ELM scheme isn’t ready for January 2021 – or indeed if it’s not fit for purpose – then the Government’s tree planting and climate change pledges could face significant setbacks.

Whatever happens, we certainly can’t leave tackling climate change entirely in the hands of the current government. I genuinely hope to be proven wrong, but I fear that the environment will take a back seat as we tackle the triple whammy of an ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a hobbled economy, and a no-deal Brexit. That’s why we need to act locally.

Climate change is such a big problem that it can, understandably, lead to apathy because people feel overwhelmed. It’s entirely rational to baulk when faced with the scale of the challenge. Nevertheless, there are things you can do. You could start simply: grow a tree from seed at home, or plant a tree sapling in your garden.

More of us must rediscover the strength of the local community, with like-minded neighbours, united in purpose, able to make real change happen. Why not join – or  form – a local climate action group? Put up some posters. Raise awareness in your community.

If you want to make a bigger splash, then get in touch with your local councils (parish and town, district or county), and ask what they’re doing to tackle climate change. Put in requests for grants to plant trees in your community. If you’re a confident public speaker, then draw up a presentation on tree planting initiatives to put to your local council. You may be surprised at how supportive they will be and you will have made a material difference!