Scotland and Sitka

I see that Chris Packham and others are making waves about the amount of Sitka being planted in Scotland. Funny that. There is nothing new here. I have raised this issue years back when the Scottish Government first published its Draft Climate Change Plan (2016?), and various environmental groups and outdoor influencers were praising its tree planting objectives without bothering to scrutinise the numbers (simply putting the tree planting numbers along the timber production targets in a different section of the DCCP made it clear that most of the new trees were going to be Sitka). At the time I got some fairly condescending responses to those concerns from some who should have known better.

But here is the thing, Sitka might not be doing much for the romantic images of Scotland as a would be wilderness, but we need it. Timber is one of the keys to dealing with climate change, as we need to wean ourselves off our dependency on concrete which accounts for something like 15% of worldwide CO2 emissions (the estimates vary somewhat, but it’s a lot). In Britain we happen to import most of out timber, and not all of it is grown sustainabilty elsewhere. We should really be self sufficient, and Sitka is perhaps the most productive source of construction timber.

The other thing people don’t seem to get is that natural forests do not provide for long term carbon capture simply because the natural life cycle of a tree is carbon neutral. As the stump said to the seedling, ‘remember, from CO2 thou came and into CO2 thou shall return’. Planting new forests gives us some initial carbon capture, but that trails off as the forest matures into its regular life cycle. To provide ongoing capture requires removing the wood and locking the carbon in the form of timber.

That is not to say we don’t need (many) more native trees, and ultimately established mature woodlands, but we need those because in our latitude they are key to biodiversity, and the loss of biodiversity is as much as an existential threat to us as is climate change. The real problem in Scotland is not that we are planting too much Sitka, but simply that we do not plant enough trees. The Scottish Government’s tree planting numbers are not ambitious enough, we could easily be aiming for at least double that, with a better balance between timber and native woodlands.

(A bigger issue is that the Scottish Government’s environmental policies are reduced largely to cutting down CO2 emissions, they haven’t cotton on yet that retaining biodiversity matters at least as much, and, unfortunately, the actions needed to address the latter are at times at odds with the former. Just now the Scottish Government is obsessed with the expansion of renewable energy installations, and, as it happens, windfarms and forests don’t mix, so every new windfarm built is a forest not planted. This environmental reductionism is going to hurt us badly in not so distant future.)