Trees suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fix it in their wood. Planting more trees to store carbon must be a key part of our efforts to tackle climate change. But laws, which micro-manage the sector, put big obstacles in the way.
A farmer who wants to grow barley rather than raise cattle does not need a licence. A farmer who wants to milk cows does not need a licence.
However, a licence is legally required to plant more than one-quarter of an acre of trees. A licence is also needed to harvest that crop of trees. Objections and appeals can make getting such licences a very lengthy process. Since 2018, more than 620 appeals against planting or harvesting trees have been taken.
The appeal process has been swamped, holding up applications to plant trees, applications to harvest mature timber, and threatening local forestry jobs in rural Ireland and the pipeline of timber to our construction industry.
While the proposed reform of the appeals process, announced this week, is welcome, it would be far more sensible (and cheaper) to simply abolish the need to get a licence for forestry planting and operations.
If landowners were free to choose whether to plant trees and when to harvest them, rebalancing our land use towards capturing more carbon would be much more likely to happen.
This is not about dismissing any environmental concerns around forestry, but about deploying more effective mechanisms, which do not have the perverse effects of the current model.
Regulation rather than licensing is a much more streamlined way to promote environmental aims, and it is how we apply environmental standards to most areas of activity, including farming.
Unlike licensing, it doesn’t require every application, including the majority that are compliant, to be checked in advance. Instead the minority of transgressors can be issued with penalties.
The Environmental Protection Agency can regulate fertiliser use on forest lands to protect our rivers. We can set regulations to avoid monoculture of Sitka spruce by specifying a proportional mix of species.
The other mechanism we can deploy to achieve environmental goals in relation to forestry and woodland management is to build conditions into the grants schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy or national support schemes. These schemes are critical to the economics of forestry, so they are an effective mechanism for achieving compliance.
So, rather than tinkering with the forestry appeals mechanism, the best approach would be to abolish the licensing requirement and to strengthen relevant environmental regulation and the conditionality of forestry grant schemes.
Although the pandemic is top of the agenda at present, climate change remains the biggest single problem facing society over the coming decades. A clear win should be to expand the area of forestry in Ireland. It could also have wider environmental benefits, including enhancing biodiversity.
More than one-third of our current emissions of greenhouse gases comes from agriculture, mostly from rearing livestock. Generally, farmers make little or no money from beef and, after Brexit, any returns will be worse.
If instead, farmers convert some of their pasture to woodland, they can potentially make more money that way. Such woodlands can provide a secure income for farmers in future decades.
The licensing impasse is not only preventing sensible management of existing forestry, but it also provides a massive disincentive for farmers to shift some of their land from pasture to woodland.
As woodland is a long-term investment, it’s important also to give landowners an assurance that increased investment in woodland will pay off, and that they will not be subject to arbitrary regulatory behaviour in this area in the future.
What happens to the wood when it is harvested is also relevant to managing our carbon emissions. Even burning biomass as fuel, which recycles the carbon dioxide stored in the wood back to the atmosphere, is better than burning fossil fuels, which continually add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
But probably the most effective use of harvested timber, from a climate perspective, would be to change from large-scale use of concrete and cement (very high-emission activities) in our traditional type of construction, to timber-framed buildings.
This is very much the dominant form of housing provision throughout the US, with its wide range of different climate zones, as well as in much of Europe. Developing a new ecosystem that goes from greater planting of trees, to developing a timber-framed panel manufacturing industry, to widespread use of timber-framed housing and apartment buildings could be a win-win for Ireland.