This blog has been written in conjunction with CIEEM’s upcoming conference ‘Delivering a Nature Positive, Carbon Negative Future.‘
Tree-planting is in the political spotlight, and can have huge benefits for carbon, biodiversity, and other environmental outcomes. But done poorly, it can be damaging and counter-productive. New digital tools can help unlock the benefits while minimising the risks, as a case study from the Ministry of Justice, WSP, and Verna shows.
Tree-planting in the spotlight
A widespread focus on tree-planting has been growing for years and continues to intensify.
Globally, there are at least three separate Trillion Trees initiatives, with UN and World Economic Forum endorsement. In the UK, all four nations have set targets to increase woodland creation, with England aiming to roughly treble its planting rate.
Some large landowners are taking up the challenge: for example, England’s water companies have committed to plant 11 million trees, and National Highways’ Net Zero plan set a target of at least 3 million.
Maximising benefits, minimising risks
If these ambitions can be achieved, they could bring enormous benefits.
Trees alone will never solve the climate crisis, but they can make a vital contribution to achieving Net Zero. New woodlands can provide important habitats to support nature recovery. Trees can help enrich soil, clean air and water, and reduce risks of flooding. And more forests mean more opportunities for people to work and play.
Yet tree-planting is only one option within a wide range of potential ecological interventions – and in many cases, it can be the wrong thing to do.
Putting trees in the wrong place can have a range of damaging consequences, including for the climate (if carbon-rich soils are disturbed), wildlife (if important open habitats are replaced), people (if historic settings are altered, or highly productive farmland lost), and other vital issues such as water quality and quantity.
Choosing the wrong species to plant can lead to negative biodiversity value, or a woodland that will not thrive under local conditions.
These concerns are wrapped up in the popular “right tree, right place” mantra.
Digital tools to make the most of trees
Increasingly, landowners, policymakers, and investors in natural capital are aware of these issues, and keen to plan tree-planting projects so as to maximise their benefits and minimise their risks. That means considering a huge range of factors, from the climatic suitability of different tree species, to the local and global environmental impacts of planting, to the financial consequences of land-use change.
Assessing all of these factors involves integrating data from a wide range of sources in complex ways. As a result, digital tools are being developed to assist human experts – including ecologists and environmental managers – with these considerations.
For example, at the level of individual sites, woodland creation opportunity maps in England (from the Forestry Commission), Wales (from Natural Resources Wales and the Welsh Government), and Scotland (created by Local Authorities) allow users to see areas where planting is likely to face risks or regulatory constraints. Forest Research’s Ecological Site Classification (ESC) tool estimates the biophysical suitability of over 60 tree species for a given site, along with a range of different mixed woodland types and management approaches, under both present and likely future climates.
Verna’s ForestFounder system was developed to find and prioritise planting opportunities across the widest range of factors and at the largest scale. It assesses factors spanning biophysical suitability (using ESC data), local impacts of planting (both good and bad), and the economics of forestry. Its outputs identify land areas with high potential for planting, and estimate the carbon, biodiversity, and financial outcomes. It can in principle assess land areas of unlimited size – for example, it has been used to search across all Land Registry parcels in a region and find the best targets for forestry investment.
Leading the way on smart tree-planting
Recently, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has enabled an exciting example of digital innovation in the sector.
The MoJ has a complex estate of around 4,000 hectares, spread across hundreds of facilities and their grounds. In line with the Greening Government Commitments, and the requirement for Government Departments to deliver Nature Recovery Plans, it has established an ambitious programme to enhance the natural capital value of its land, aiming to take a leadership role amongst public sector landowners in understanding the habitats within its holdings and managing them for environmental benefit.
This programme needs to optimise across a complex set of objectives, enhancing nature and achieving Biodiversity Net Gain whilst also improving prisoners’ health and wellbeing, ensuring climate resilience, and supporting (rather than cutting across) future plans for prison operations and expansion.
The expert data and advisory function to underpin this programme has been led by WSP. This role has included carrying out detailed habitat mapping and producing a biodiversity baseline across the entire estate (using a combination of remote sensing and field measurements), quantification of the natural capital and ecosystem services provided by the estate (including via the NATURE tool, which received Highly Commended at the CIEEM Awards this year), and advising on management plans for individual installations.
One of the MoJ’s goals was to increase tree cover and improve woodland condition, in the best and most appropriate way and across a range of planting patterns and densities. Using WSP’s baseline as an input, Verna’s ForestFounder tool was used to map and assess tree-planting opportunities across the entire estate. This has informed the MoJ’s plans for where to plant, and also what species to plant – including what mix of seeds and seedlings to procure.
The MoJ is now finalising its planting plans, to include new areas, supplementation of existing woodlands, and improving habitat condition. They have already established seven nurseries across the country to provide stock for planting and give prisoners, and those in probation, opportunities to learn valuable forestry skills and connect with nature.
Computer-driven tools will never replace the nuanced assessments of an expert ecologist.
But they can do data work on a speed and scale beyond human capability – such as finding and prioritising the highest-potential opportunities over large land areas, for human experts to then examine in detail.
In a world where ecologists and other experts are in ever-increasing demand, digital tools can make our work more efficient and effective.
And one positive outcome of that will be more of the right trees, in more of the right places.
Dr Matthew Brown is a co-founder of Verna, a British green-tech start-up providing data and software for sustainable land management.
Laura Homfray MSc PIEMA is the Deputy Team Leader for WSP’s specialist Natural Capital and Biodiversity team.
Anna Bright MSc MCIEEM is the Ministry of Justice’s Principal Ecologist, and the main contact for their Nature Recovery planning and embedding sustainable land use.
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