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Boris Johnson said the government would plant 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of new woodland in Britain every year by 2024. But with a year and a half to go, official figures reveal planting is still below 14,000 hectares for the year to 31 March 2022.
The Confederation of Forest Industries (Confor), which represents more than 1,500 forestry and wood businesses around the UK, said that the “woeful” rate of progress meant there was now "zero chance" of reaching the targets.
The organisation has now called on the prime minister to intervene to boost planting rates.
“This is a total policy failure in both economic and environmental terms,” said Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor.
“Report after report has shown that increased tree planting and wood use is vital to meeting the UK’s net-zero targets – yet this is not being translated into trees in the ground.
“This is especially true of productive forests, which produce wood alongside benefits for carbon, nature and the economy. The government knows more wood is needed to build low-carbon homes and it knows the UK faces a shortfall in future domestic wood supply, yet it is seeking to keep a tight lid on the planting of productive forests.
“Environmental groups know we need to grow more wood in the UK rather than increasing the pressure on fragile global forests, but the government – against all the evidence – is not taking decisive action.”
Mr Goodall said Scotland was planting 75 per cent of all the new woodland in the UK, although the Scottish figure fell slightly on 2020-21.
Last year environment minister Zac Goldsmith said the government would plant 7,000-10,000 hectares of woodlands in England alone by 2024.
But the latest figure show that for the year to 31 March 2022, Scotland planted three-quarters of the total with 10,480 hectares, England planted 2,260 hectares, Wales 580 hectares and Northern Ireland 540 hectares.
Mr Goodall said Confor had arranged fact-finding visits for ministers and officials and was working hard to remove the barriers to planting productive forests.
“We need a joined-up policy and we simply don’t have it,” he said. “The UK government wants to level up and tackle climate change, but it ignores taking the actions that would deliver on all these agendas. It commits to protecting fragile global forests at Cop26 while also presiding over a decline in domestic wood supply which will simply put more pressure on those very fragile forests.”
“There is currently zero chance of meeting planting targets unless we see decisive and immediate change.
“If Defra isn’t able to deliver the government’s own manifesto commitments then it’s time that the prime minister stepped in to ensure they do,” Mr Goodall added.
The lack of progress on tree planting comes despite repeated warnings the government has lacked a “joined-up strategy” on woodlands.
Last year, Labour MPs highlighted the disconnect in Westminster with the business department spending six times more on subsidies for a timber-burning power station in North Yorkshire than Defra spends on tree planting.
Annual subsidies for the timber-burning power station, which runs on “biomass” made up of imported waste wood, reached £832m in 2020, while the budget for tree planting and peatland works out at just £130m a year.
The environment secretary, George Eustice, told The Independent: “We have stretching and ambitious targets when it comes to tree planting, and just last year we launched the England Trees Action Plan. Through the plan, we will plant 30,000 hectares of new woodland every year in the UK by the end of this parliament, backed up by over £500m of Nature for Climate Funding.”