Why is wood so tree-mendous for the North East? Read Paul's latest column to find out:
Am I mistaken or has the cherry blossom been particularly splendid this year? Wind and heavy rain destroys blossom so maybe this spring we’ve had a lack of these two enemies of beauty.
Back when I studied for my English Literature A-level at Walbottle Comprehensive our main poet was A.E. Housman and he’s been with me ever since, especially when the spring arrives:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
The blossom has also been magnificent in Brussels, lifting the spirits as I cycle from my flat to the Parliament each morning where I’m currently working on a piece of legislation which has the potential to encourage more tree planting across Europe.
We have always had a tricky relationship with trees. We depend on them to regulate the climate and rainfall, clean our air and water, sustain plants and animals, and support the livelihoods of over a billion people. Yet we continue to destroy them, to the point that only half the world’s original forest cover remains.
The price of deforestation can hardly be overstated. Trees consume large amounts of carbon dioxide as they grow, making them vital tools for absorbing the greenhouse-gas emissions – from cars, factories, power stations and livestock – that result in climate change. If we continue to lose forest cover, the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) by 2050 will be impossible to achieve. To meet our climate change targets, we need to restore a significant amount of our forest cover.
The UK has fewer trees than almost any other country in Europe, with our tree cover standing at 13 per cent compared with an EU average of 38 per cent. Yet, we are a nation of tree lovers and we have some of the oldest and most revered in the world. For instance, there is our own Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall that recently won the Woodland Trust’s 'Tree of the Year' competition.
It’s this business of incentivising the restoration of our forests that is driving my thinking at the moment, partly because of the potential to create jobs, particularly in construction. Most buildings today are constructed using bricks and mortar, concrete, and, for larger structures, steel – all materials that produce substantial carbon emissions during the manufacturing process.
While it is unlikely that timber can fully replace any of these materials, new types of engineered wood are making it more competitive. One of these is cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is made by gluing together layers of wood to create panels that are as strong as steel or concrete, and thus can replace those materials in buildings.
Architect Anthony Thistleton, one of the UK’s leading experts on wooden buildings, recently noted that, whereas a typical British home has a carbon footprint of around 20-21 tons, a CLT home has a negative footprint of 19-20 tons. In other words, every home built with CLT saves 40 tons of CO2 emissions. If the 300,000 new homes targeted for completion in the UK this year were built using CLT, it would be like taking 2.5 million cars off the road hence the climate benefits could be massive.
When we leave the EU the subsidies that accompany the Common Agricultural Policy will end and the UK will need a new system to support our farmers, a system which should have tree planting at its heart.
New forests both in the uplands and the lowlands, including planting in our greenbelts, can help with regeneration. A couple of CLT factories in the NE would be a major advance for our region and they could take timber not only from Kielder Forest but also from Scotland, as well as imports from Scandinavia and the Baltic states by any one of our many excellent water ports.
Opportunities to align economic development with the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions are rare. Yet that is what reforestation offers. We must take advantage of this opportunity, by pursuing a construction transformation based on restoring trees, the world’s most effective carbon-capture tool. In this “new age of timber,” we would grow wood, build with wood, and allow our forests to thrive.