This is my first opportunity to observe COP and I was instantly drawn to the land use themes in the side events which play a large part in the climate discussion. Over the course of the two weeks I found myself thinking especially about trees, not just in the most obvious sense of carbon sequestration, but as an essential part of how we manage our land. During the ‘Landscape Restoration for climate objectives, synergies and trade-offs across Sustainable Development Goals’ side-event held on the 5th December, one of the commentators pointed out that trees have been a vital part of the action on climate change since the inception of COP, and that they will continue to be key to any action we take in the future. They are an eloquent solution to many human-induced problems, yet still global tree cover falls annually!
40,000 tree species are under threat globally, some of which are important traditional food sources. We must therefore think about the right trees in the right places in order to maximise the range of positive effects re-treeing landscapes can give us. One story of tree planting as mitigation against soil erosion and environmental decline especially caught my attention. A single African local council had spent 10% of its expenditure on tree planting programmes, to marvelous results in terms of improving food security of women and children and reducing soil loss. A wealthy country like the UK spends less than 1% of GDP on conservation of our environment in the broadest sense. Imagine, if just in one year we were to spend 10% of GDP on environmental programmes what a massive difference this would make.
As part of a presentation by FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) and the climate smart country programmes ‘Climate Smart Agriculture: Identifying the best bets’ (5th December), the three pillars of smart agriculture were discussed: 1) productivity, 2) adaption and 3) emissions. Within the 90 countries surveyed, all of the top scoring systems under the three categories were found to be tree systems. Silvopasture (a mixed system of grazing and tree cover) came top under its ability to provide adaptation and reduce emissions. Today this system is common in the developing world, but silvopasture was also once an essential part of European agriculture; could we think about restoring more of these systems as a compliment to more intensive agriculture in the UK?
I’ll just finish by sharing with you an intriguing thought about trees from the German conservationist and forester Peter Wohlleben (author of ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’) that I heard on Radio 4 recently. He described how most trees only become adults at 300 years old, so in this sense we are surrounded by ‘baby’ trees who have not yet developed their full functional capacity. There are only a very few places in the world left where there are large numbers of adult trees that form sophisticated communities. Planting trees can therefore only be part of the answer, along-side that we must preserve old growth, an irreplaceable asset of our planet.