About 4,000 hectares of trees were planted last year, significantly below the target of at least 15,000 hectares annually needed to maintain equilibrium between harvest and planting.
That is according to the advocacy group Environmental Pillar, which has poured scorn Government claims that Ireland's forests are making a significant contribution to tackling the climate change emergency.
The Environmental Pillar, a coalition of 28 environmental organisations including An Taisce, Friends of the Earth and Irish Wildlife Trust, said far from being in line to mitigate the State’s greenhouse gas emissions, forest management may actually become part of the problem.
Ireland has 11 per cent of land under forest and has a target of 18 per cent by 2050. The Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for policy in the area, says forests “play a significant role in mitigating climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it to carbon, which is then stored in the wood and vegetation of trees”.
It also says “the substitution of carbon-intensive products, such as steel, plastic and aluminium, with timber products can make also make a significant contribution to climate change mitigation”.
A recent conference of the Society of Irish Foresters and the Wood Marketing Federation heard that forests “are in the front line” of Ireland’s response to the climate change emergency, even if Government targets could be more ambitious.
Minister of State Andrew Doyle separately told the event "Irish forests are a significant sink and carbon store".
Such claims by Government and industry were not supported by the evidence, according to Environmental Pillar’s spokesman Andrew St Ledger. He said based on current planting rates the State was being deforested, rather than afforested.
Although he said forestry could potentially reduce Ireland’s anticipated fines for exceeding targets for greenhouse gas emissions, the Council for Forest Research and Development – the official body for forestry research – said in 2007 that a minimum of 15,000 hectares per year of new planting was needed to avoid deforestation. “In the current situation forestry will not only be failing to mitigate against climate change, it may be making it worse,” Mr St Ledger said.
“The current situation is that when an existing site is felled despite its age, because it is replanted, the impact is considered to be neutral so the overall forest estate always looks full on paper.” But he said mature forests sequestered much more carbon than newly planted ones.
Mr St Ledger, who is also a spokesman for the Woodland League, said timber and pulp production must be balanced with biodiversity and community benefits “from a model based on long-term, continuous-cover, mixed-species native woodlands that do not require chemicals”.
“The lack of integrated land management plans with not enough environmental assessments or regulation is a big problem causing habitat loss for threatened birds and other species like the freshwater pearl mussel and other aquatic life impacted upon by water pollution caused by leaching after clear-felling,” he said.
He was speaking ahead of a major conference on forestry and climate change on Monday organised by Forest Industries Ireland at the Botanic Gardens, Dublin.
Extinction Rebellion activists will stage a protest at the entrance to the gardens in protest against what they say is “commercial forestry using the climate emergency as an excuse to endanger biodiversity”.