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Planting 200 million trees could generate £500 million annually

– but only if they are planted in the right place.

University of East Anglia

More than 200 million new trees should be planted in Britain according to researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

A new report published today reveals that converting almost 7,000 km2 of land (an area larger than the size of Cumbria) to forest could generate an income of £500 million annually. But careful consideration about exactly where to plant new trees will be vital.

The recommendations are made in one of four UEA reports that make up the UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow On (UKNEAFO), which assesses how much nature is worth to the country’s economy.

Other parts of the report consider the regional impact of coastal erosion and flooding, how much UK wealth and employment is dependent on the natural environment, and how policy makers should take into account the environmental impact of their decisions.

Prof Ian Bateman, from UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences, said: “Creating new woodland areas would generate a variety of benefits. These include cleaning water before it goes into rivers, providing a habitat for birds and reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Woodlands are also great places for recreation, and of course trees are a crop which provides timber for sale, giving farmers a source of income.

“Choosing the best locations for planting new trees is very important for maximising their value. We developed a new computer programme which allows us to find the best place for new woodlands, taking into account the costs and benefits for each location.”

The new tool is programmed to select areas which will give the highest value to either farmers, wider society, or both.

Prof Bateman said: “Planting on prime agricultural land would result in a loss for farmers far greater than income generated from timber. But planting on some poor quality farm land, such as peat moorland, would cause a cost to society because it would dry the soil, leading to the release of CO2. We have taken all of this into account, along with ease of public access to new woodlands. For example woodland planted close to some major cities would be of high value because of the recreational benefits.

“Perfect positioning of new trees could create net benefits exceeding £500 million each year to society. But choosing the wrong areas, particularly when chosen to maximise market return rather than taking into account the value to society, could incur a net loss to the tax payer of up to £65 million.

“We need to make the best use of our land in Britain. So when the government is considering making changes to land use, such as under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), they need to be able to assess the full value of the land. The wrong choices could be detrimental to both the economy and the environment.”

Coastal erosion and flooding

Another part of the UKNEAFO report looks at new methods to assess the local impacts of government decisions on coastal erosion and flooding.

It calls on the government to assess the full value of coasts to people and wildlife before making policy decisions – using a tool developed by UEA researchers.

Prof Kerry Turner, from UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences, said: “Decisions on funding to maintain defences against coastal erosion and flooding are made at a national level – but where they are constructed will have a big impact on local communities and the environment.

“Decision makers need to consider the impact of environmental and policy changes on people and wildlife. The tool we have created enables the government to better anticipate and compensate for regional and local impacts.

“For example, decisions could lead to the flooding of people’s houses or farmland, or even the loss of homes as we have seen this winter on the Norfolk and Suffolk coast. Our tool allows policy makers to better anticipate public resistance to changes and possible compensation measures.”

UK wealth and employment depends on the natural environment 

Insects help bring £400 million to the UK economy by pollinating crops, forestry-related industries generate more than £7 billion, and tourism contributes more than £36 billion according to the report.

A team led by UEA’s Dr Annela Anger-Kraavi reviewed more than 300 reports to establish how much UK wealth and employment is dependent on the natural environment. Their findings show that the environment provides a surprisingly large contribution to the national economy.

Dr Annela Anger-Kraavi said: “This is really important because the environmental economy clearly underpins a large number of people’s jobs and brings in billions to the UK economy. We need to understand more about how ecosystem services contribute to the economic sectors in order to protect people’s livelihoods and maintain UK economic growth.”

Where government leads, society will follow

Another part of the UKNEAFO report calls on policy makers to examine the potential environmental impacts of new policies at the early stages of decision making.

Appraisal is a process where policy makers do this, and the research team looked in detail at the types of appraisal commonly used – for the first time.

Prof Andy Jordan from UEA said: “Services that nature provides for free – such as clean water, fresh air, insects to pollinate crops and beautiful areas to relax and unwind – are often taken for granted. The government has developed an Ecosystem Services Framework to encourage policy makers to consider ecosystems when they look at new policy ideas. But our research shows that it hasn’t been embedded into everyday practices.”

The report shows that barriers include lack of skills, time and money among civil servants, combined with difficulties in understanding the concept. The result is that the environment is not fully taken into account in the decision-making process.

Prof Jordan added: “Safeguarding ecosystems is critical, but it will require patience and long term commitment. Quite simple things like better training and career incentives can go a long way to encourage decision makers to consider ecosystems.

“If the government shows leadership in the way it appraises its own policies, it will send a very powerful signal to businesses and other social groups that it means what it says about the benefits of safeguarding ecosystems.”

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow On (UKNEAFO) is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Welsh Government, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It is published on Thursday, June 26.


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