Decline of forest planting a major obstacle to climate goals, committee told

Land formerly a carbon sink will become net emitter of greenhouse gases, academic says

Afforestation ‘is one of the highest policy priorities on our agenda at the moment,’ the Oireachtas Environment and Climate Change Committee was told. Photograph: iStock.

Afforestation ‘is one of the highest policy priorities on our agenda at the moment,’ the Oireachtas Environment and Climate Change Committee was told. Photograph: iStock.

 

The shocking decline of forest planting in Ireland poses an enormous obstacle to Ireland achieving its target of net zero carbon by 2050, the chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAS) has said.

Marie Donnelly* said on Tuesday that Ireland is in “a serious hole” in terms of afforestation, because land that has been a carbon sink until now will become a net emitter of greenhouse gases within the next few years.

It was an immediate and urgent challenge to get the policies right on afforestation, Ms Donnelly told the Oireachtas Environment and Climate Change Committee .

“Otherwise so much of the other work we do will be unsuccessful because we will not have a sink in place. That is one of the highest policy priorities on our agenda at the moment.”

Ms Donnelly said it came as a shock to her last August to learn that the carbon sink created by forests in Ireland was degrading at such a rate and was likely to disappear by 2030.

“If we don’t have sufficient forest and a forest sink we will not be able to achieve a net zero position by 2050. That was the situation we were confronted with [last August].

“Even if we planted half of Ireland today we wouldn’t have a sink in place by 2030,” she said.

Ms Donnelly was one of a large number of speakers from the CCAS and its advisory Carbon Budget Committee who were invited to speak about the Carbon Budget published late last year.

Transformation

Member* of the advisory committee Prof Briain Ó Gallachóir of UCC told the committee that to achieve a 51 per cent reduction by 2030 would require transformation across all sectors of society.

“We have the second-highest ambition in the world in terms of climate action. Clearly that brings challenges across all sectors,” he said.

Later, asked if the will was there to achieve it, he said: “Has the penny dropped across the society? I don’t think it has.”

On afforestation, Ms Donnelly said there was a need to build incentives to increase afforestation, including a carbon credit system.

Dr David Styles* from the University of Limerick did modelling work on afforestation and land use. He said that with very low planting rates of trees, that carbon sink was going to decline dramatically and there would be a doubling of emissions in the land use sector by 2030.

Addressing that deficit, said Dr Styles, would be “extremely difficult because it takes time to build up”.

*This article was amended on January 12th, 2022