Paul's latest Journal column

16 March 2016

It wasn’t my intention to upset Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu but I clearly had done.  “Listen to the cheek and impudence of the young man, listen!”

The occasion was a private dinner in Copenhagen during the UN climate change talks in 2009, which were in serious danger of failing.  Seated round the table was senior figures from the European development sector, the Archbishop and Ed Miliband, at that time Energy and Climate Change Minister in Gordon Brown’s government and Britain’s lead negotiator at the talks.  I was there as a stand in for Daleep Mukarji my boss at Christian Aid.

The discussion was lamenting the lack of the presence of the most recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, the newly elected President Obama, who many of us were pinning our hopes on to rescue the talks.  If only he would fly across the Atlantic and, like the cavalry in a Western, save the situation, we mused. 

Having met Tutu before and been struck by his ebullience and sense of humour I thought he wouldn’t mind a joke at his expense, so I ventured forth, “Well, presumably the problem with Obama is that once you have won the Nobel Peace Prize it’s all down hill after that, isn’t it Archbishop?”

If Ed thought it funny, he wasn’t showing it.  Very diplomatic I thought.  Our German colleague from Bread for the World grinned at me and remarked, “Ah, British humour”.  Maybe it was the long flight from South Africa, maybe he didn’t like his food, maybe … all sorts of things but the Archbishop was not amused, he was wooden.

I haven’t seen the Archbishop since, which is maybe just as well, but I’ve seen Ed Miliband several times since and I was pleased to spot last week that he is now leading a cross party climate change push to get the UK to sign up to achieving zero carbon emissions at home in response to the commitments our government made at the successful Paris UN climate change talks last December.

In the noisy media build up to the talks in Paris an important report failed to make the impact it deserved.  Produced by the European Forest Institute it suggested that the contribution made by the European Union’s (EU’s) forests in helping tackle climate change could be significantly higher that initially appreciated.

Last year, when I undertook my work as one of the Socialist’s rapporteurs in the European Parliament on the EU’s Forest Strategy, we believed that forest cover was responsible for absorbing some 10% of the EU’s carbon emissions.  This overlooked report, A new role for forests and the forest sector in the EU post-2020 climate targets, suggests that sequestration levels may be as high as 22% of the current EU CO2 emissions.

This suggests two important courses of action need to be adopted.  

First, we need to plant more trees.  The Republic of Ireland intends to increase its tree cover from 10% to 18% by 2050.  The UK should be considering a similar move from our 12% present cover.  Such a move could also help tackle flooding and open up exciting new possibilities for agro-forestry, with its potential to increase crop yields and biodiversity, while reducing soil erosion, fertiliser use and pesticide applications.

Second, we need to make more things out of wood, with the construction industry being the obvious area for a huge expansion in wood use.  The relatively recent arrival of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) is the game changer here.  In December 2015 the world’s tallest wooden building opened in Bergen, Norway, standing 14 storey’s high, capturing carbon for decades to come.  Meanwhile in Vienna work has begun on a 24 storey wooden building.  The opening of the UK’s first CLT factory at Sherburn in Elmet, in Yorkshire later this year will enable us to use British wood (including from Kielder), to make British timber, to build British homes on an industrial scale.  The energy needed to make concrete and steel is immense, hence they are products with big climate footprints, the less we can use of them the better, wood is the opposite – it absorbs carbon.  So I take heart, a wooden response isn’t always bad.

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