Greenhouse Gas Removal Plus (GGR+): Sustainable Treescapes Demonstrator & Decision Tools

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Economics

Abstract

Due to the need for climate change action, UK Government has committed to the ambitious task of achieving 'net zero' greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, some emissions from farming, aviation and other activities are very difficult to eliminate. So to reach net zero the UK must also directly remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere amounting to the equivalent of 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide/year.

Of the Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR) options available, increasing the carbon stored in the UK's 'treescapes' (forests, hedgerows etc.) has the greatest potential, the lowest cost, and can be started immediately. Planting woodlands can store carbon in standing trees, in forest soils and in timber products. For these reasons, the UK is committed to a huge increase in forest cover. However, our understanding of all these processes and how they vary across locations and over time is incomplete. This major programme will gather evidence, address knowledge gaps and allow decision makers to understand the GGR consequences of different planting options. Woodlands can also deliver many other benefits, creating habitats to conserve wild species, enhancing water quality, regulating rainfall and reducing flood risk, and providing recreation (hence the "GGR+" title).

GGR+ will examine all the diverse aspects of forestry to identify "The Right Tree in the Right Place". However, it is equally possible to plant the wrong tree in the wrong place. This can result in damage to biodiversity, and even cause some soils to release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Also, if certain types of agriculture are displaced, there could be higher imports of food from countries that destroy rainforests to increase farm yields. On top of this, climate change means that many risks (forest fires, extreme weather, disease) are changing faster than ever.
"The Right Tree in the Right Place" is not a simple proposition - if we are not careful, and don't consider the complexities properly, the UK's net zero tree planting strategy will be poorly designed, and at worst could result in forests that actually increase climate change.

However, even understanding the consequences of planting in different locations is not enough to plan the future of the UK's forests. Land is typically privately owned and Government cannot dictate its use. Rather they need to create the conditions and incentives needed for owners to decide to plant trees. Consequently, GGR+ will also undertake the economic research needed to turn science advice into practice.

This challenge cannot be addressed by scientists alone, and the GGR+ partners include UK land use policy makers, including all of the Forestry authorities, the Defra teams responsible for forestry, climate and agriculture (who will use GGR+ to plant 30,000ha/year), as well as the Ministry of Defence (which has huge land holdings). From the private and NGO sectors our partners include massive land owners such as Network Rail and the National Trust (who together will fund over 74,000ha of planting based on GGR+ advice), as well as a network of over 1,400 farmers, the timber and building sector and many other stakeholders.

Together with our partners, GGR+ will design innovative "decision support tools"; bespoke software allowing users to examine the effects of a tree planting investment or policy in terms of greenhouse gas storage, food production, incomes of those involved, effects on biodiversity, water quality, flooding, recreation etc. Perhaps most revolutionary, this tool will allow users to specify what outcomes they want and then see what planting, policy or investments they need to get those outcomes.

This is an exciting, highly interdisciplinary approach to answering the surprisingly challenging question of finding "The Right Tree in the Right Place" and setting the UK on the path to delivering net zero emissions by 2050.

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