Slowing the Flow: Facing the drift into climate crisis

“A society grows great when old men plant trees

whose shade they know they will never sit in.”

(Greek proverb)

Britain has 5.5 million men, and 6.5 million women, who are of pensionable age. If each of us were to plant a tree this year the UK would comfortably exceed the government commitment to plant 11 million trees by 2020.

As it is, there’s not a cat in Hell’s chance of doing so.

Theresa May has already pushed back the government 2020 target to 2022, claiming the snap general election threw her government off course: as though this had nothing to do with May herself. The truth, however, is much worse.

The 2015 Tory manifesto promised to plant 11 million trees over the following five years, but planting was already well behind schedule when Theresa May called the 2017 election. At that point, 642,000 trees had been planted in England (in 2015/16) and 802,000 in 2016/17.

Promises, promises

The 2017 Conservative manifesto repeated the pledge, adding another 1 million trees to be planted in towns and cities. This was gesture politics. Everyone now knows Theresa May had shoved environment and climate onto the back-burner of British politics. Who cared if the programme was running at around one third of its promised rate? The answer was…voters.

Post-election polling has told the Tories they have no chance of winning electoral support from younger and Middle England voters without a radical shift in their environmental policies; hence Michael Gove’s ‘charm offensive’. But there are key reasons the charm fails to travel very far. One is the silence that separates Gove from the libertarian Right who dominate the Tory Cabinet. The other is that none of the government promises turn into viable programmes. Hence the massive underperformance of tree planting pledges.

In reality, 11 million trees is not a lot. It could probably be done by half a dozen professional planters within the current parliament. But the arguments for doing so on a more socialised basis relate more strongly to the complex stage of human existence we have already entered.

Felling the future

Britain is now the second largest importer of timber, after China. We could be close to the point at which Britain chops down more than it plants. Trees take 100 years to grow, so it isn’t as thought there’s a magic wand to wave. We need a longer term vision; one whose shade others will be able to sit in.

Only 13% of the UK is covered in trees, compared with an average of 35% elsewhere in the EU. In England, the figure is even less (just 10%).

But tree planting has far more to do with crisis avoidance than just keeping up with the neighbours; flood prevention being the most obvious place to start.

Flooding costs the UK more than £1 billion a year. On a bad year, it can be nearer £5 billion. And bad years are coming thick and fast. One in six properties in Britain is now deemed at risk of flooding. Climate change will only make this worse.

The key is to be found not so much in ‘hard’ measures – higher flood walls or increased dredging of river beds – but in re-wilding upland areas that can hold the water for longer periods. This is where tree planting comes into its own. Anyone wanting hard evidence doesn’t need to look far.

Slowing the Flow

Pickering’s Slowing the Flow project in North Yorkshire shows how upland tree planting has been able to reduce the likelihood of flooding; from 25% in any year to less

than 4%. Similar demonstration projects elsewhere have done the same. Moorland restoration in Holnicote (Somerset) cut peak-flood flows by 10%. At the headwaters of the River Derwent (the Peak District) peak flows have been cut by 30%, and the 23,000 trees planted alongside the River Ouse (Sussex) have restored a vulnerable ecosystem, reduced peak river flow and begun to store carbon (again) in the soils.

It isn’t as though these initiatives fly in the face of public resistance. The Environment Agency, local authorities and environmental groups are all on board. The Woodland Trust wants to plant 64 million trees over the next 10 years – one tree for every UK citizen – and is offering tree planting packs for communities to do so. Campaign organisations like 10:10 champion the work of local communities, and private sector bodies have already joined in. Sainsbury’s planted 2.5 million trees over the last 10 years and IKEA is funding another 1 million trees (for communities) through their own tree-pack scheme.

So why does the national programme look so pitiful? The first reason is that the government heavily cut flood prevention funding in 2011. Subsequent replacement funds have not broken the stop-start culture that overhangs the government approach. Then there is the abject failure to streamline the procedure attached to ‘permissions to plant’. Coordinating statutory and voluntary interests has not been a problem. Getting through the bureaucratic swampland certainly is. It is precisely the space that a serious government programme would clear first.

Finally Britain faces the absurd reality that, though there are grants for tree planting, farmers receive greater subsidies for not planting trees than for planting them: hardly the hallmark of a coherent programme.

The bigger picture

Almost on a daily basis, we receive confirmations of the accelerating pace of climate change. Climate breakdown might soon become a better term. There are no ‘business as usual’ answers to the mess we are making. A secure tomorrow will have to be built around a much humbler economics; one that puts back far more than it takes out. Perversely, it is the only economics that will make us better off.

To stay within a 1.5C increase in global temperatures will mean taking the carbon out of consumption…starting now. It means living within fixed carbon budgets, which we have barely even found ways of discussing.

The ‘carbon budget’ each of us has to live within is roughly 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions/year. The current global average is 5.5 tonnes/person/year, but this too is misleading. Some 7.6 billion of the world’s poorest live well below the 1 tonne/yr level. At the other end, the USA tops the carbon obesity scale at an average of 16.5 tonnes of carbon/person/year. The problem is with the rich, not the poor.

Most of us are still baffled by what a tonne of CO2 looks like, where it comes from, or how to cut back on it. We all need an ‘Idiots Guide’ to getting back on track. So let’s begin with the good news.

A global economics based on 100% renewable energy is now deliverable by 2050 (or earlier). Our individual cars (currently eating up half of our personal annual carbon budgets) can be replaced with EV or hydrogen vehicles. Better still would be the shift into whole town/city public transport infrastructures, using only renewable energy. And the massive carbon footprint of food and product miles can be radically cut by more localised and regionalised production systems.

All this needs to be part of a Plan that is bigger than anything Britain has known outside war-time. It goes to the core of what Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell MP, means when he talks of “…the next parliament needing to be a transformative one”. Climate physics will not hold the window open ’til politicians wake up.

Which brings me back to trees.

The seedlings of hope

It will not be enough to live more lightly. We have to start putting carbon back. Soil, land and the seas are the best places to start. Planting trees is not just about flood prevention. It goes beyond restoring soil fertility, reversing degradation or putting nature’s lungs back into towns and cities. Fundamentally, this is about reconnecting ourselves to life, in all its fragility, its myriad interdependencies…and its enormous possibilities.

We should be ashamed to be arguing about how long to wait for the government to plant 11 million trees. This is not a 2020 or 2022 debate. It is a NOW one. If this sounds unreasonable, let me put it into perspective.

In June 2016, the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh broke the Guinness World Record for tree planting. Some 800,000 volunteers planted 50 million trees…in 24 hours.

I barely had time to catch my breath when, a year later, the neighbouring state of Madyha Pradesh smashed it further – involving 1.5 million volunteers, planting 66 million trees…in just 12 hours.

How pathetic this makes us look. With all our wealth, with all our resources, we argue about a disappearing timeline, when what’s at stake is a disappearing world.

We could all step up to the same plate as India’s poor. Britain’s old men, and old women, could do the same, with our children and grand-children, with our friends and neighbours.

Then, we too could know that future generations might yet sit in the shade that we ourselves will never get to see.

Alan Simpson

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