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Forest Management

Citizens’ Assembly Recognises Timber as Material of the Future

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The citizens’ assembly group ‘Climate Assembly UK’, has recently published a report detailing a path to net-zero. Guided by recommendations made by the public, it features timber and responsible forestry as an integral part of an emission-free UK.

The group consists of six UK government select committees, and is championed by Sir David Attenborough, was established following the UK government’s pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The assembly decided to focus its discussion on the implications of changing our current way of life and the alterations that will have to be made to make the UK a greener nation 1.

Sir David Attenborough has become a leading advocate for collective action against climate change (Photo: Courtesy of Flickr on Wiki Commons, Licensed under Open Government Licence version 1.0)

For the timber industry, the news is encouraging. The assembly openly recognised and promoted the benefits of sequestering carbon through sustainable and responsibly managed timber farming. It is exciting to witness the positive change of public attitude and perception towards forestry; with it now becoming an important weapon in the battle against climate change.

Trees naturally absorb and store carbon as they grow. This carbon stays trapped in the wood, again naturally, if they are cut down and used as timber in buildings.

Climate Assembly UK- The path to net zero Full Report

Climate Assembly UK recommended that architects and designers in the UK should increase their use of wood in construction projects. Driven home by one poll conducted by the group, which showed that 82% endorsed the use of wood in construction, whilst 99% stated they thought that better forest management should be a key method to achieving the UK’s net-zero target.

Timber is unquestionably one of the very best materials for creating innovative structures. Not only does it act as an important carbon sink, but provides remarkable structural integrity, heath providing aesthetics, versatility and anti-microbial properties.

However, many of the misconceptions still held by the general public towards timber harvesting, were displayed in the assembly’s discussion. One of the main issues raised by forum members against increasing the use of wood in construction was the perceived inability of knowing if the timber came from a legitimate, sustainable source and concern that the UK would have to begin importing large amounts of wood.

Concern as to the location and sustainability of wood imports demonstrates the continued lack of public knowledge into how the UK government verifies the legality of its wood sources. Since the early 1990s, systems of verifying due-diligence on the part of wood suppliers and buyers, have been far better regulated, and scrutinised, by governments than any other commodity sector.

Wood imported into the UK goes through a vigorous system validation (Photo: Courtesy of Unsplash)

European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR), operates to ensure that all wood sources brought into the EU are compliant with strict guidelines as to the provenance, legality and sustainability of imported wood. Furthermore, the UK government has many established regulatory frameworks in place to ensure that timber brought into the country is from a legal supply chain.

In terms of the carbon cost of importing wood from other countries, timber again is far better than conventional building commodities. The carbon dioxide produced in the transport of importing wood into the UK, is entirely offset by the carbon sequestered by the wood used in construction. Wood is extremely environmentally beneficial when used as a building material and its use must be further encouraged if the UK aims to become a zero-emission nation by 2050.

To find out more about the fantastic benefits of using timber in design, follow this link.

Another large portion of the discussion surrounding forestry in Climate Assembly UK’s report, surrounded afforesting large areas of historically converted farmland. Although it is encouraging that proposals to increase wooded areas in the UK are in motion, it is also important to recognise the delicacy and intricacy of such a move.

Climate Assembly UK recommended increasing afforestation to encourage the use of timber.
Afforestation is beneficial but must be done correctly to fulfil its full environmental potential (Photo: Courtesy of Unsplash)

If the UK government were to take on the recommendations to plant large amounts of new woodland, there should be caution around reverting back to old policies of ‘coniferisation’, where monoculture, non-native woodland is planted en mass. Although such plantations are economically beneficial in the short term, producing a high turnover of regularly shaped long length timber, they can have negative effects on the soil health, biodiversity and prosperity of other native forest lands.

As conifer trees have a relatively high canopy height, more pollutant scavenging will take place (meaning the trees will capture more sulphur and nitrogen from the atmosphere)2. In consequence, the soil will absorb more acidic minerals and pollutants resulting in ground material with a lower pH. This can have a very adverse effect on native biodiversity, ill-adapted to cope with different soil properties.

The best way to afforest more land in the UK is to use more native species. Not only are they best suited for the soil of the UK, but provide the most natural aesthetic and are unparalleled in encouraging biodiversity within their ecosystems.

Native Oak could be one of the species encouraged to be afforested in the UK.
Native Oaks could be one of the prospective species encouraged in the UK (Photo: Courtesy of Unsplash)

However, the controlled use of conifer plantations cannot be entirely discredited, any policy should take a blended approach that balances economics with the environment. Afforestation is a great way to encourage increased use of timber in a circular economy, which provides equal consideration to protecting environmental, societal and environmental objectives.

Conclusions

Overall the recommendations put forward by Climate Assembly UK to achieve a net-zero UK by 2050 are encouraging. A greater understanding of the importance and role that timber must play in the future economy of the UK was clear. The idea that wood should be used to replace conventional materials in construction must be made clear to the UK government and implemented in policy.

President Macron has already attempted to implement similar recommendations in France, enforcing a 50% use of wood in public building works. In the wake of the European Green Deal and recent reevaluations of climate targets, other European countries are following suit. The UK must not get left behind in the move towards timber if it hopes to attain a net-zero nation and fulfil its pledges to the electorate.

  1. Jones, D., Stride, M., (2020). Forward to Climate Assembly UK Final Report. Climate Assembly UK[]
  2. Evans C.D., Nisbet T.R., (2014) Forestry and surface water acidification. Forestry Commission Research Paper.[]
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