WELSH GOVERNMENT plans for a national forest and the use of farmland to promote ‘public goods’, such as helping it meet its Net-Zero target have come under the spotlight this week.
A BBC report highlighted the purchase of a number of Carmarthenshire farms by carbon trading speculators.
Those companies are buying farms and using their land to plant trees so they can trade ‘carbon credits’.
Dai Dyer, an agricultural consultant in the Tywi Valley, Carmarthenshire, researched the buying and selling of farms in mid and South-West Wales.
He said buying up land for forestry might prove an irreversible trend that could see “fruitful, productive farms that also house families” into “a house surrounded by trees”.
He said the Welsh Government’s Woodland Investment Grant Scheme should only be offered to those living in Wales and the amount of planting on anyone holding restricted to 10%.
But companies buying the land do so in the expectation of making big bucks out of governments’ wishes to be seen to do something to tackle the CO2 emission-driven climate change crisis.
MAKING CLIMATE CHANGE PAY
Trading carbon credits can be incredibly profitable.
Essentially manufacturers and businesses are able to buy carbon credits to offset the amount of carbon they produce during industrial processes.
That creates a price for carbon and is an incentive for carbon producers to significantly invest in low-Greenhouse Gas technologies and processes.
To enable the trade to take place means that carbon credits become economic instruments, subject to government funding and regulation.
The act of trading creates a private profit and takes a public subsidy.
It creates the risk that agricultural subsidies intended to aid Welsh agriculture end up being pocketed outside Wales, even in trades that create no carbon benefit at all.
In one notorious overseas case, French oil giant Total invested in a Zimbabwean forestry project run by another oil corporation that created more carbon than was offset.
That did not prevent Total from reporting it reduced its carbon footprint.
But the deal did virtually nothing to decrease carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or even create carbon neutrality.
MORE TREES DO NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM
Since 1905, the area of Welsh woodland has increased by around 250%.
That increase however has been concentrated in certain areas, with devastating environmental, social, and economic impacts.
The wrong trees in the wrong place created a monoculture of conifers in some areas of Wales.
Those plantations impoverished the land, wrecked biodiversity and allowed non-native invasive and destructive species to flourish.
Created for ostensibly benign purposes, plantations of non-deciduous trees, have cleared forest floors of wildlife and ruined the natural landscape.
That monoculture’s downside has been highlighted by a string of diseases and pests which have meant large areas of planted forest have had to be cleared.
Larch and ash are already being felled as diseases sweep through rural Wales wreaking havoc in the process.
Fire, storms, attack by pests and pathogens, human incursion, and revisions of governmental or landowner policy, all compromise the certainty of carbon storage, as much as that of timber production values.
And, at the end of the day, forests need clearing and restocking and all that wood must be processed somewhere.
Forestry’s long production cycle, as well as the indefinitely prolonged residence of some CO2 fluxes into or from the atmosphere, make calculations concerning climate change mitigation uncertain and unpredictable.
It’s certainly not a case of more trees, less carbon.
STRIKING THE BALANCE FOR WALES
No-one can guarantee that carbon locked up by forests will remain so forever, even if this is the plan.
FUW Deputy President Ian Rickman said: “The conversation around food production and its impact on climate change has gained tremendous momentum.
“Many different proposals have been put forward by political parties to increase the woodland area in Wales.
“Plaid Cymru want to see the total woodland area increased to over 600,000 hectares by 2050, Welsh Labour to almost 500,000 hectares and the Conservative party would like to see woodlands extend to around 450,000 hectares based on typical tree planting densities.
“That pressure of course is primarily coming from the conversation around climate change.
“We agree with measures to mitigate climate change, the question is how do we strike a balance between reducing emissions and offsetting emissions.
“As an industry we have to be realistic about tree planting and make sure that it’s the right tree in the right place.
“Rural and Agricultural Government funding could inadvertently be diverted away from family farms to investors from outside of Wales, capitalising on tree planting payments, whilst removing working farms from the landscape.
“This would naturally have negative impacts on our rural communities, the Welsh language and the rural economy.”
We asked the Welsh Government about the competing pressures between its plans for a National Forest and ensuring Welsh agriculture remained sustainable.
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “There are important issues of social justice to consider as the National Forest programme is developed.
“We have set up a group to examine how tree planting can be funded whilst retaining the benefits locally and avoiding disadvantaging Welsh communities.
“The Stump Up For Trees Project, near Abergavenny, which aims to plant a million trees in the Brecon Beacons is a good model.
“Local farmers sell carbon credits, that way they control and own the land, and get the broader benefits from the trees, whilst securing funding from a range of sources including the Welsh Government and from business.
“Later this year we will launch a consultation on the delivery of the National Forest.
“We encourage Welsh citizens, Welsh businesses and particularly our farmers to engage with this process to help design the National Forest programme.”
We also asked what active steps the Welsh Government was taking to ensure future subsidy payments tied to the delivery of ‘public goods’ remain within Wales and not diverted to corporate entities or individuals outside Wales.
A Welsh Government spokesperson told us: “Future farm support will focus on meeting the challenge of sustainable food production whilst responding to the climate emergency and reversing the decline of biodiversity.
“It is unlikely investors buying land for planting trees on a large scale will apply to the scheme.”
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