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  • Writer's pictureThe Climate Coach

Do we have enough spare land to keep planting more trees?

A lot of focus on reducing the level of carbon emissions focusses on planting trees, but do we even have enough spare land to keep planting trees? Don't we use all the land we have already? Good questions...!

Where did all the trees go?

Hopefully it's common knowledge that in the UK at least, we've pretty much cleared the majority of the trees we once had. Many parts of the country were covered in dense forest and over the years - much of this forest was cleared either to use the wood for construction or to use the land for something else. As it stands right now - the majority of the land in the UK is farmland used for food production.

Ok so how can re return land to forest if we use most of it for other things then?

Well, let's first look at how land use is made up for the UK. It's actually quite a similar story across many countries globally so although it's looking at the UK, the key points here may well apply to others. The visual below is from the National Food Strategy and provides a simple visual to provide a high level visual of land use in the UK - helpfully within the shape of the country.

UK land area divided up by purpose. About 70% is devoted to agriculture, mainly livestock and livestock feed and pasture. The right-hand side of the chart, using the same scale, shows how much land is used overseas to produce food for the UK. About half of the total land use takes place overseas. The combined land area for rearing beef and lamb for UK consumption is larger than the UK itself. Source: The National Food Strategy, Part II.

Give me a high level overview of what this is telling us then?

What really surprised me about this information when I first saw it - wasn't the 70% figure of UK land used for agriculture, but the fact that we use over 100% of UK land just for beef and lamb production - when you add in the land used including what we import (shown on the right of the visual).

We are using more land mass than the whole of the UK combined, just to produce enough beef and lamb for UK consumption.

If that doesn't demonstrate it's not sustainable, I don't know what does to be honest! I'm amazed it has been allowed to get to this level...but that's one for another day so let's park that thought for a moment.

If you look at the other big land users - there isn't much in terms of opportunity. Obviously we want to produce as much food locally as we can - so you wouldn't want to reduce the land used to grow fruit, vegetables (including potatoes) or cereals. You can obviously be more efficient with the land but if anything - you'd want to increase this as we clearly rely heavily on imports as shown on the right. Built up areas will obviously likely to continue to increase alongside population increasing so there isn't likely much opportunity there either. You are then left with beaches, inland water, forests and peatlands - none of which you would want to use for anything else - peatlands are also a well known carbon sink and are capable of absorbing and storing large amounts of carbon.

So what are we left with?

You probably worked it out and it is fairly obvious from the visual I've used but the amount of land we use for animal based products (meat, dairy and eggs) is substantial. This is primarily where our opportunity is. That said - there is still plenty of land where we can plant trees right now, and you can definitely see more motorway verges and new housing estates having vast areas of trees planted over recent years. So some of it is just about being clever about where we plant trees - it doesn't have to be a massive open space where we can plant a forest. On a counter to that though - there are les biodiversity benefits of planting trees in this way and in the motorway verge example, you are unlikely to get much wildlife in those areas. Ok so farmland used for meat production...?

Meat consumption is and has been on a downward trend for many years - meaning on average people are eating less of all types of meat. This obviously reduces the amount of land required to produce it in the first place. Plant based food is also much higher efficiency wise meaning even if the volume of plant based foods needs to increase to generate the calories we require, we'll still have excess land. My view is that this land needs to be re-wilded, which in most cases means planting trees (as it likely used to be forest in the first place) and other schrubs/plants/flowers too. This actually creates a double whammy in effect - because meat production is carbon intensive and produces high emissions generally so not using it for meat production will reduce the emissions from that area or land anyway - and then planting trees and re-wilding will actually absorb carbon too. There are also many secondary benefits around bio-diversity with wildlife often thriving in re-wilded areas.

Sounds simple enough...?

Even if meat consumption does continue to decrease (which hopefully it will and also accelerate), unless something else changes this isn't going to be quite that simple. The landowners in question are earning money from their land at the moment through meat production and re-wilding it once it is no longer used for meat production isn't going to replace that lost income. Personally, what I would really like to see in the short term is a government backed scheme set up to pay landowners to look after their land and oversee the re-wilding - it would likely be one of the most effective ways of spending money to support climate change.

We ultimately need people to do this job anyway regardless of where it is done - so who better than the people who look after the land already and are likely to see their livelihood impacted by meat consumption reducing. Another alternative which is already happening is creating solar farms to generate renewable energy - with the landowner provided with payment for use of the land again offsetting the loss from reduced meat consumption.

If you have any thoughts, feedback or ideas you wish to contribute on this or any other topic covered by The Climate Coach - please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.

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