The England Trees Action Plan: to plant or protect? Government must do both
The England Trees Action Plan sets out government’s ambitions to treble its rate of tree-planting to 30,000 hectares per year by the end of this parliament. However, with comparatively little focus on protecting existing trees, the Plan prompts the question: why can’t we do both?
To achieve its new targets, government will spend £500 million of the Nature for Climate Fund to increase woodland cover in England from 10% to 12% by 2050. Despite this ambition, the CCC’s recent report to parliament showed no improvement in government’s 2019 score of 5 out of 10 for commercial forestry. Policy Connect’s Climate Policy Dashboard awards the sector the same score, and identifies that despite some progress in policy this remains an area of stasis. The Plan promises actions with potential to reduce carbon emissions and support ecosystems in adapting to climate change. However, its emphasis on planting over protection misses a major opportunity to leverage England’s natural assets by protecting established trees, particularly in urban areas.
The Plan explores four key areas:
1. Expanding and connecting our trees and woodlands
Government promises to provide landowners, managers, and investors with incentives such as the Woodland Creation Offer to establish and maintain trees and woodlands. In urban areas, new guidance for local authorities promotes working with developers to include trees in the built environment. This will be financed by an extension of the Urban Tree Challenge Fund.
2. Protecting and improving our trees and woodlands
A new Centre for Forest Protection will support land managers in improving woodland condition, via increased species diversity and reducing biosecurity risks from pests and diseases with altered geographical ranges. Local planning systems must now recognise the value of trees, with local authorities required to consult on the felling of street trees.
3. Trees and woodlands as part of the green economy
Encouraging increased timber use in construction will drive investment in planting, whilst a new Impact Fund brings private finance into new natural capital markets for carbon, biodiversity and flood alleviation. Government will support apprenticeships and T Levels that provide skills for the sector.
4. Connecting people with trees and woodlands
A ‘Trees for Climate’ programme will deliver 6,000 hectares of new woodland by 2025, planted and managed by local communities. Community groups will also be eligible to apply for new grants for this purpose.
If followed with action, increased quantity and quality of tree cover can bring benefits for nature and climate alike, providing a range of habitats, cooling, improved soil structure, flood resilience, and absorbing carbon and other atmospheric pollutants. Allocation of funding, promotion of community access to nature, and focus on tree health and biosecurity have been particularly welcomed, even though planting has stalled over the last decade.
Planting versus protecting
With government focussed on planting, the Plan only meaningfully considers how to protect existing trees from pests, diseases, and insufficient management. In doing so, it sidesteps the crucial threat to trees in the UK: removal due to development. The plan includes no new measures or guidance on this issue, suggesting that local authorities ‘work with’ developers to promote retention where possible.
It is a common misconception that planting cancels out the removal of mature trees. Research increasingly demonstrates that larger trees absorb more carbon than smaller specimens, and that mature woodlands are biological networks in which trees support the health of one another and other organisms. Removing mature trees sacrifices co-benefits for climate and nature which cannot be recovered by planting saplings. It appears counterintuitive to plant new woodlands whilst protections for established trees remain weak. Crises in climate and nature must be considered together, as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) commented:
"Only recently the CCC recommended that to achieve net zero we need 8Mt of negative emissions from nature by 2050, but so far plans seem to be limited to tree planting and peatland restoration. These are incredibly important but to meet the climate challenge we need to be investing in a far broader range of habitats, including wetlands such as saltmarsh."
Planting is encouraged on privately-owned, rural land, but the Plan avoids committing government action for planting or protection in urban environments. Although funding has been extended, responsibility for delivery falls upon community groups and NGOs. To work with developers as the plan recommends, local authorities require staff with specialist arboricultural knowledge. In practice, the application of British Standard 5837:2012 means trees are usually removed from development sites. Without a step change in guidance and funding at a local level, urban and peri-urban areas that most need their cooling and structural benefits will become increasingly treeless landscapes.
A single hectare of woodland with mixed native species can sequester over 400 tonnes of carbon, so increasing native tree cover certainly constitutes positive progress. However, the current Plan does not utilise the best of what trees and woodlands can contribute to the climate crisis. By shifting focus to planting and protecting trees across all of England’s landscapes, government can deliver far greater benefits for climate and citizens.
 Forest Research (2021) Woodland Statistics. Available from: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/tools-and-resources/statistics/statistics-by-topic/woodland-statistics/.
 Climate Change Committee (2021) Progress in adapting to climate change, p. 94. Available from: https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Progress-in-adapting-to-climate-change-2021-Report-to-Parliament.pdf.
 Stephenson, N., Das, A., Condit, R. et al. (2014) Rate of tree carbon accumulation increases continuously with tree size. Nature (507), pp. 90–93. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12914.
 The Woodland Trust (2021) How trees fight climate change. Available from: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/how-trees-fight-climate-change/.