Rules that need be neither bent nor broken

Photo (c) Darren Hester

The UK Government’s Low Carbon Transition Plan, published in July this year, makes the case for the creation of 10,000 hectares of new woodland a year for the next fifteen years. And that’s just for England: Scotland already has a similar target. If achieved, the English contribution alone could draw an estimated 50 million tonnes out of the atmosphere by 2050.

Only it’s not really a target. It’s an aspiration, an altogether different thing. I still aspire to climbing Mount Everest but as a target it would be a lost cause. We would be right to question the commitment of the Government to achieving this level of woodland creation – which requires a ten fold increase in activity – when it won’t even make clear the intent.

And then there’s the question of how to fund this step change. According to the LCTP, it needs to be “privately financed”, by which the corporate sector is probably the intended focus. These are the guys who don’t do anything, not even Corporate Social Responsibility, for nothing.

So how, and why, is this money going to suddenly appear? Some could come from controls on development. Housing developers, for example, could have a proportion of woodland creation imposed on them as part of the planning application. Section 106 money – set aside to compensate for at least some of the environmental damage that development inevitably brings, could be directed towards woodland creation projects, which would deliver a range of benefits above and beyond the locking up of carbon.

But why would a high street bank, for example, choose to direct some of its still vast profits into the pathetically modest coffers required to bring about new areas of woodland for people to enjoy? The answer must be the bottom line: money.

Until very recently, the only way to gain access to corporate funds for woodland creation was through the CSR route, engaging employees to come and plant trees in the local community, in turn delivering a healthy, happy workforce and binding local values and sense of worth together more strongly. But in recent years there has been another, altogether more businesslike alternative: Carbon.

It goes like this. Companies do things, sometimes very bad things, that result in greenhouse gas emissions. Pressure from above (Govt) and below (customers) have meant that companies vie to appear in the best, greenest, light, showing the outside world that they are cleaning up their acts. Reducing the company environmental impact – often rephrased as its carbon impact – is now a central activity.

There are two ways to achieve this, reduce or offset. Obviously we need to do both with the emphasis very much on the first – take responsibility, ask “what can I do to make things better?” – yet offsetting has a crucial part to play. Offsetting, which by definition means taking actions to mitigate emissions in a place where they didn’t happen, has rightly been scrutinized to the nth degree over the years. But in a more savvy world, high quality offsetting is still needed as a complement to on site emissions reductions. The key is to make sure the emissions reductions/savings truly are equivalent and that they really happen.

It’s unfortunate, then, that woodland creation in the UK can’t “officially” be sold as an offset, according to the Government. The problem is that all tree planting is tallied towards UK targets reported under the Kyoto Protocol. Selling carbon credits would thus amount to double counting. This presumptive possession of carbon rights seems unfair, but them’s the rules.

Only that’s not quite the full story. A legal mechanism exists by which the Government could enable the generation of tradable carbon credits from domestic forestry. By retiring the appropriate number of “Assigned Amount Units” (AAUs) the double counting issue would go away. With carbon credit generation on the cards, there would be a financial incentive for people to plant trees or fund woodland creation projects. The outcome would surely be a higher level of reforestation, something that we, and the Government, all want.

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